The Sharks have been one of the most successful sides competing in Super Rugby since inception in 1996.
In the 1980s and early 1990s, various championships, series and tournaments involved the Australian and New Zealand rugby unions and when South Africa was readmitted into international sport, they were invited to participate in an expanded competition featuring teams from the three rugby-loving countries as well as one of the Pacific Nations.
The tournament, played over two pools featuring five sides in each pool, had two teams (New South Wales and Queensland) to represent Australia in the new Super 10 competition in 1993, while four would come from New Zealand (the top four teams from the previous year's National Provincial Championship) with the top three performing Currie Cup teams representing South Africa.
The winner of the previous year's Pacific Tri-Nations between Fiji, Tonga and Western Samoa would participate (Western Samoa in the first two years and Tonga in the final year – 1995).
Transvaal (now the Lions) lay claim to winning the very first trophy when they defeated Auckland (the Blues) in 1993. After an undefeated run against New South Wales (now the Waratahs), Samoa, Auckland and Waikato (the Chiefs) in 1994, Natal topped the log where they came up against Queensland who defeated them 21–10 at the final at Kings Park.
The Super 12 was inaugurated as a fully professional competition after the 1995 Rugby World Cup when the sport came out of the amateur era for good and embraced professionalism.
Natal would exact revenge in 1996 over Queensland, defeating them in Brisbane (43-25) in the semi-final where they again reached the final, only to lose to an All Black-laden Auckland side at Eden Park.
It was the first of four finals Natal – and later The Sharks – would play up until 2012.
Interestingly, in the first year of the Super 12 in 1996, the Crusaders finished last. They would go on to feature in 10 finals, winning seven. The Sharks and Blues are the third most frequent finalists, although The Sharks have yet to win the final.
In 2001, Rudolf Straeuli took over from Hugh Reece-Edwards as coach, taking The Sharks to the final which was played in Canberra. The Brumbies won the first of their two titles in that match and it would be a further six years before The Shark were back in a Super Rugby Final.
In 2006, a further two teams were added to the competition – the Cats were split and their teams reverted to their former, independent selves: the Cheetahs and Lions, while Australia were awarded their fourth franchise, the Western Force from Perth.
The Crusaders lost just one game en-route to yet another title while The Sharks finished in fifth place, tie with the fourth-placed Bulls who went through thanks to a 43-10 defeat of the Stormers in the final game of the pool stages. Their points’ differential was 65 to The Sharks 64 if ever there was a closer run finish. But they had lost one less game than The Sharks to go through ahead of them.
Under Dick Muir and John Plumtree, The Sharks played some exciting and enterprising rugby in 2007 to finish top of the log with 10 wins from their 13 pool games, including a last gasp one point win over the Crusaders when Odwa Ndungane scored a try in the corner, which Ruan Pienaar converted from the touchline to win an epic game 27-26.
The Sharks would be on the other side of a one-pointer in similar fashion when Bryan Habana scored a controversial last minute try which was converted in the final at KINGS PARK to give the Bulls their first title.
The Sharks reached the semi-finals in 2008 but were no match for the Waratahs in Sydney and just missed out the following year.
In 2011, the Melbourne Rebels were added to the competition to give each participating nation five representative sides in the 15-team Super Rugby Competition.
The Sharks reached the finals series after finishing as a Wildcard entry (finishing in sixth place), but a match against the Crusaders in New Zealand once again proved too tough.
In 2012, against all odds, and after a slow start to the tournament, The Sharks finished in sixth spot again.
This would mean, again, a trip overseas in the Final Series, where they came up against the 2011 champions, the Reds in Brisbane. There would be no disappointment this time as they defeated the Reds 30-17, nor the following week where tournament hopefuls, the Stormers, lay in wait back in Cape Town.
Despite their hectic tour schedule, The Sharks showed great composure to see off the Cape side 26-19.
However, what lay in wait for them was a hurdle too far to cross. Another flight back over to New Zealand saw to their demise as the Chiefs delivered a 37-6 win against a travel-fatigued Sharks side.
The 2014 season heralded much excitement. A new coach in 2007 Rugby World Cup winning coach Jake White at the helm and a new captain in stalwart Bismarck du Plessis.
The team were off to a great start, with a rare bonus point win achieved in the Durban February heat, against the Bulls. Victories continued and they topped the log. They toured successfully with three wins from four - the only South African side to win on tour, and their points achieved on tour exceeded the cumulative total of the four other local franchises.
A historic, first time ever win over the Crusaders in Christchurch was the highlight and demonstrated their title aspirations in spectacular fashion. But on their return, two disappointing losses saw them slip out of the top two, meaning a home quarter-final (which saw them defeat the Highlanders in emphatic fashion), but an away semi-final. The Crusaders would spoil the party in Christchurch, as the 2014 season ended a week prematurely for the Cell C Sharks.
It has been an exciting ride along the way and Sharks fans will have plenty of great memories to look back on, with the anticipation of future success not far off on the horizon.
Roll of Honour