Hard work, but no glory

2012-11-03 00:00

IT has been a remarkable season for coach John Plumtree and his Sharks, but their heroics, spread over nine months, have been obscured by the gloom of last Saturday’s Currie Cup final defeat by Western Province (WP).

Plumtree, just a fortnight ago, spoke of “an amazing year”, after the Sharks clinically beat the Blue Bulls 20-3 in the Currie Cup semi-final.

“To play in a Super Rugby final and three months later host a Currie Cup final is really great. It’s a year I won’t forget,” he said.

But just a week later, Plumtree was a changed man after Province had pulled off their massive upset. The devastated coach carried the haunted look of a survivor reeling away from a horror accident.

His despair was mirrored in the faces of the many thousands of supporters at King’s Park that night and therein lay the problem — the Sharks’ achievement in reaching two finals had been obliterated by a painful defeat.

Such is the fickleness of sport, and the fine line between success and failure, that a year of hard work can be undone by one slipped tackle and a shoddy lineout. Forgotten in the endless recriminations, which inevitably follow an unexpected defeat, have been the quality and character shown by the Sharks during an extended season.

Backline coach Grant Bashford this week tried to place the Sharks’ season in some perspective.

“I don’t think we are far off [winning a trophy]. If we had been told at the beginning of the year that we would make two finals, we would have taken that.”

It is perhaps worth remembering how far the Sharks have come this year.

They had a nightmare start to Super Rugby, losing five of their first nine games — four of them by a frustrating six points or less — and appeared out of Super Rugby contention by the half-way mark.

But Plumtree’s plan then came together effectively when they proved the form team in the second round of the competition, winning eight of their last nine games. They then startled the rugby public, and the bookies, by travelling to Brisbane and knocking the champion Reds off their perch (30-17) in the quarter-finals. A week later they were the party poopers of Newlands, as they beat the Stormers 26-19 in the semi-finals.

Another long haul back to New Zealand for the final was a bridge too far and they were well beaten, but they had shown they had the pedigree and talent to beat the best.

A week later, the Currie Cup provided a different challenge for Plumtree.

They played most of the competition without a dozen Super Rugby regulars, who were either on Springbok duty, injured or playing on foreign fields. But coach Plumtree was astute in tapping into the remaining talent, papering over cracks and keeping his squad on the high road to the final.

Their young, patchwork squad played balanced rugby — mixing excellent defence with lively, ball-in-the-hand attack, and scoring the most tries in the Currie Cup and conceding the fewest.

The new-look Sharks had the perfect start with an excellent 25-23 win over WP in Cape Town. They did have problems on the road, losing to the Blue Bulls (31-42), Griquas (15-22) and the Golden Lions (22-28), but they remained unbeaten at home. A crucial Bloemfontein win over Free State (37-30) sealed top spot and home advantage for the play-offs.

The emphatic 20-3 semi-final victory over the Blue Bulls ensured they were in excellent shape to win their third Currie Cup title in five years. Plumtree had reintegrated his Springboks into a winning squad and they had form, momentum and home ground advantage.

But Western Province had not read the script. Their tit-for-tat response to their Super Rugby semi- final defeat effectively knocked the glitter from Plumtree’s season and subjected us all to a long week of “What happened to the bloody Sharks?”

Well, the final had started swimmingly. They had a 12-3 lead after 30 minutes, with the Sharks bossing the forward exchanges and Pat Lambie punishing the many Province mistakes. But then out of the grey, without warning, came Juan de Jongh’s try, as the Sharks defence, for the first time in weeks, was split wide open.

Perhaps, because their plan was coming together perfectly, the Sharks felt good and lost focus. What is certain is that the swing in mood and momentum was palpable. Suddenly the Sharks thought they could lose and suddenly Province believed that they could win. The difference, of course, was that Province had the ball and the Sharks, without lineout possession, did not have the tools to finish the job. The course of the match — and the Sharks’ season — had dramatically changed in an instant.

Plumtree, who used the Currrie Cup competition to build the depth in the squad, was able to point out on Saturday night that the Sharks would be in excellent shape for next year’s Super Rugby marathon.

He praised the many youngsters in the side who filled the many holes left in the first-choice squad by departing players. Wiehahn Herbst, Kyle Cooper and Dale Chadwick stood up manfully in the front-row, Anton Bresler and Jandre Marais performed solidly in the front-row, young scrumhalf Cobus Reinach emerged to dislodge Charl McLeod and Tim Whitehead combined effectively with Paul Jordaan in the midfield.

One of the Sharks’ most consistent and outstanding performers was fit-again fullback Louis Ludik, while Plumtree highlighted the impact captain Keegan Daniel made after his early axing from the Springbok squad.

The older hands, Odwa Ndungane, Meyer Bosman, Jean Deysel and Jacques Botes, all played consistently well, while Riaan Viljoen, particularly in the wet, made telling contributions as a caretaker flyhalf.

The eight South African squad members from this year (Beast Mtawaria, Jannie du Plessis, Craig Burden, Marcell Cilliers, Willem Alberts, Pat Lambie, J.P. Pietersen and Lwazi Mvovo) will form the nucleus of next year’s Super Rugby squad.

They will be joined by returning Springboks Bismarck du Plessis, J.P. Pietersen and Ryan Kankowski. Plumtree is expecting baby Bok Pieter-Steph du Toit (flank/lock) to make a major impact next year, while the Lions’ new Springbok lock Franco van der Merwe will be in Durban on loan.

Butch James will provide experienced back-up at flyhalf.

If you can, just for a moment, forget about last Saturday night, the Sharks, smartly coached and with a vibrant mix of young and old, appear to be in excellent shape. Now if they could only sort out their lineout...

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