A plan perfectly executed

2013-11-02 00:00

JOHN BISHOP reflects on the Sharks’ fluctuating Currie Cup season that had a nightmare start and a fairytale ending.

IT was a campaign that started in disarray but ended in heady triumph as the Sharks, cleverly and ruthlessly, went from the ridiculous to the sublime in regaining the Currie Cup title they had last won in 2010.

The Sharks’ physical intensity and meticulous planning brought them a 33-19 Curie Cup final win at Newlands and, as underdogs, they followed the modern trend by toppling the favourites.

Few would have expected the Sharks to scale such heights following the dramatic and acrimonious mid-year changes at King’s Park. But, under new CEO John Smit and coaches Brendan Venter, Brad Macleod-Henderson and Sean Everitt, they snuck up and mugged Province in their own backyard to take home South African rugby’s richest prize.

The road to the final was not the smoothest and the Sharks were forced to grind out narrow wins, often in the closing moments of tense contests.

The strict rotational policy of the new coaching regime, along with Springbok selections and injury, resulted in a constant to-ing and fro-ing of players, and it was only in the closing weeks that the strongest available teams were chosen.

The season started with a disastrous, nervy 32-30 home loss to Griquas that immediately placed the Sharks, and their new management, under pressure. Victories over Golden Lions (33-25) and the Cheetahs (18-15) in Bloemfontein lifted the siege but their set piece creaked horribly as they lost to Western Province both away (19-25) and at home (13-17).

A 30-minute cameo off the bench by scrumhalf Charl McLeod inspired a 34-18 win over the Blue Bulls in Durban and a late try by prop Wiehahn Herbst edged them home 25-24 against struggling Griquas in Kimberley.

Young flyhalf Fred Zeilinga had a field day with penalties, conversions, drops and a try in their 31-25 win over the Lions at Ellis Park and veteran Butch James calmly kicked two late penalties for an 18-16 win at Loftus to secure a home semi-final.

Their most balanced display came against Free State at King’s Park when they romped home 50-26 and they again beat the Cheetahs in the semi-

final (33-22) a month later when Pat Lambie flourished and scored 23 points.

While the high profile Springboks were massively influential in the final, a host of journeymen laboured long hours to get them to Newlands.

Flank Jean Deysel enjoyed an excellent season, winning three man-of-the-match awards, until he unluckily went down with an injury in the semi-

final. Veteran Jacques Botes, in becoming the most capped player in Currie Cup history, Kyle Cooper, Keegan Daniel, Charl McLeod, Odwa Ndungane and Lwazi Mvovo were the stabilising influences while props Dale Chadwick and Wiehahn Herbst performed admirably against the Free State’s Test front-row in the semi-final.

Young talent also emerged and fullback SP Marais, signed from the EP Kings, centre Heimar Williams, lock Peet Marais and Zeilinga are clearly players for the future.

But it was the late return of their Springboks that transformed a willing young squad into champions, adding muscle, skill and rugby nous at the critical moment.

The impressive Pieter-Steph du Toit was back to solve the lineout problem, the Test front-row dodged injury and disciplinary problems to prop up the scrum and Willem Alberts, Marcell Coetzee, Bismarck du Plessis and Frans Steyn added the confrontational, physical edge.

And it all came together in the Currie Cup final.

There is no doubt that the Sharks flourished as underdogs and they were delighted to wear the label. After two round-robin losses to Western Province, they knew they had to do something different and improve dramatically in certain areas if they were to prevail.

Province, in contrast, had little reason to change their winning formula. There was no need to think outside the box as the Sharks did. WP were confident they could control the set pieces while their excellent defence would knock back the Sharks’ big ball-carriers on the gainline and their X-factor out wide would punish any wayward kicks.

But Province were outmanoeuvred. The Sharks were upset in the 2012 final at King’s Park because Province reigned supreme in the lineout. This time the Sharks did their homework and it was Pieter-Steph du Toit who was the dominant jumper while even the relatively small Daniel, lifted high at the front, pinched some of Province’s ball.

The Sharks then unlocked the Province defence not by bashing away in midfield but by playing behind their flat-lining backs and turning them with their varied kick-and-chase game. And, behind their relentless forwards, halfbacks Charl McLeod and Lambie played pivotal tactical roles (and scored all the points).

Golden Lions coach Johan Ackermann, a former Sharks lock, said after his team lost at Newlands in the semi-final that Province would beat the Sharks in the final.

“As an opposing coach you look at Province and there are no areas that you can pinpoint as possible areas of weakness that you can attack.”

But Venter and company did find holes and their players implemented the plan to perfection.

Still, it was surprising that the media and pundits in Cape Town were so quick to write off a Sharks outfit with a strong pack and the best flyhalf in the country.

Unbeaten Province had also been hailed as the more dangerous attacking side yet a glance at the final Currie Cup log shows that the Golden Lions, Free State, the Sharks and the Blue Bulls all scored more tries than they did during the Currie Cup season.

The victory was also a triumph for the Sharks’ individual courage. Frans Steyn, a formidable presence in the midfield at Newlands, had seen just an hour of action after nearly six months of rehabilitation, Alberts was returning from a worrying neck injury and two of the Sharks — prop Jannie du Plessis from the start and wing Lwazi Mvovo for an hour — played with broken hands.

The Sharks coaching staff wanted Springbok tighthead Du Plessis to take the field, even briefly, because of the psychological boost it would give the team, while Mvovo was prepared to soldier on after his injury, tackling, running and chasing, because there was no specialist wing on the bench.

Jake White now takes over from Venter at the Sharks and he has the most difficult act to follow. He will obviously want to stamp his authority and style on the Sharks but supporters will be hoping that he will build on the platform that has been left for him and not try to fix what ain’t broken.

It took the Sharks (as Natal) 100 years to win their first of seven Currie Cup titles. John Smit has masterminded one within four months of taking over as Sharks boss. He must be wondering what all the fuss is about.

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