Of all the teams to catch the eye at the beginning of the 2020 Super Rugby season, perhaps none have exceeded expectations as much as the Sharks.

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The Durban-based franchise have never won the competition, although they came close in 1996, 2001, 2007 and 2012, ending up as losing finalists on all four of those occasions. For the most part, they have been a side that has been competitive at the latter stages of the tournament, as well as one of the standard bearers for South African rugby.

Given the exodus of players to Europe and Japan from the country, however, as well as the rise of the Lions in recent seasons, the Sharks’ fortunes have diminished of late. Despite qualifying for the quarter-finals in 2019, the exodus was unrelenting, as the franchise bid farewell to the likes of Tendai Mtawarira, Coenie Oosthuizen, Akker van der Merwe and the three du Preez brothers, among plenty of others.

Heading into it, the 2020 season had a significant element of rejuvenation for the Sharks, not only for the considerable turnover in personnel, but also the volume of talented prospects their pathway had involved in the South African U20 side last year. Between integrating the youngsters, settling in the new arrivals and dealing with the losses of experienced players, optimism around the Sharks’ title hopes this year was cautious at best.

That said, the Sharks, now under new head coach Sean Everitt, have made an excellent start to the campaign. They recorded a 23-15 win over the Bulls in their opener, a crucial match in helping them take dominance in the South African conference, before heading over to Dunedin and making the Highlanders look extremely poor in a 42-20 victory at Forsyth Barr Stadium.

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Watch: Sean Everitt and Lukhanyo Am face the media before the season

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They now head to Wellington to take on the Hurricanes, before finishing their tour in Australia with games against the Rebels and Reds. On current form, the Sharks may well be disappointed if they do not record at least two wins from those final three tour games.

Their back three of Aphelele Fassi, Sbu Nkosi and Makazole Mapimpi is flying, the centre combination of Andre Esterhuizen and Lukhanyo Am complements its component parts and Curwin Bosch continues to establish himself as an option for the Springboks at fly-half. Up front, Ox Nche and Thomas du Toit look comfortable as starting props and Ruben van Heerden, Sikhumbuzo Notshe and James Venter are giving Everitt plenty of punch further back in his pack. Of that group, Mapimpi is the oldest at 29, whilst the others are all 26 years of age or younger, with plenty of development still to come.

With those ‘veterans’ – relative to the general level of top level experience now in South African Super Rugby squads – stepping up and creating a winning environment at the franchise, Everitt and the Sharks have the perfect foundation from which to start integrating and blooding their remarkably talented crop of youngsters.

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The scrum-half pairing of Sanele Nohamba and Jaden Hendrikse seem to be first up, with Nohamba having already made his mark in the opening two games of the season. With the pack going well and providing a platform, the jobs of these two gifted half-backs are made a whole lot easier. They’ll jockey with one another for position over the course of the season, although as stands Nohamba is the favoured man.

Into the back row and the Sharks can call on Phepsi Buthelezi, the South Africa U20 captain from last year, and Celimpilo Gumede, who has another year of U20 eligibility still available to him. Buthelezi made his Super Rugby debut last year and will likely get first crack at a spot in the 23 this season due to his experience and leadership qualities, though Gumede is not far behind him purely as a rugby player, and both are blessed with work rate, technical skill and dynamism.

There are other players to keep an eye on, too, such as Dylan Richardson, JJ van der Mescht – assuming he doesn’t soon head to France as has been rumoured – and Emile van Heerden, all of whom starred at the U20 level for the Junior Springboks last year. Former South Africa U20 captain Jeremy Ward waits in the wings for his opportunity, as does Madosh Tambwe, Michael Kumbirai and Fez Mbatha, in what has been an under the radar but excellently orchestrated rebuild of the Sharks senior side.

They are far from the finished article, but if a side is winning games, successfully bringing through young stars, recruiting intelligently without breaking the bank and managing to accomplish all of those whilst dealing with annual exoduses to Europe and Japan, then something is going very right in Durban at the moment.

The story of last season was the Jaguares’ rise to prominence and march to the Super Rugby final. Maybe this season it will be the continuing evolution of a young and exciting Sharks side that seems to be prospering in the adversity faced by South African franchises in the competition.

Watch: Crusaders star Sevu Reece extends his contract with the franchise

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