No silver lining

2010-02-27 00:00

AN optimist was once described as someone who does not pick up the morning paper, but dodging the bad news will not be that easy if you are a Sharks supporter.

There will be nowhere to hide this weekend and the question in pub, club and lounge will be the same: “What the bloody hell is wrong with the Sharks?”

“Plenty,” would be the succinct reply by those who would prefer to move on and talk about something more palatable. But there are still 10 rounds of Super 14 rugby to be played and the Sharks’ problems have to be faced.

The Sharks’ third successive defeat against the Crusaders yesterday was predictable, but it nevertheless made for uncomfortable viewing with so much wholehearted effort ending with a 35-7 beating. South African teams do not know what it is like to win in Christchurch and, as expected, the jet-lagged Sharks patently suffered in the closing quarter. But, following on the narrow defeats against the Chiefs and the Cheetahs, and after a committed and encouraging first half, the thumping was both painful and revealing.

The attacking spark is certainly missing from the Sharks who are a half-a-dozen tries short of being a rugby team. In the three games to date they have scored just one try — by Ryan Kankowski against the Cheetahs — and again yesterday they never threatened the Crusaders’ line.

The backs tried running at the organised Crusaders’ defence in the first half and the forwards hogged the ball and tried to batter their way in the second. Neither could a try make and it is obvious that until they work together as a cohesive unit, with the driving forwards breaching the gainline before they release their backs against a fractured defence, they will fail.

The irony, of course, is that head coach John Plumtree wanted this to be a Sharks’ Super 14 campaign of all-out attack. He hoped to overcome a dreadful draw by playing a daring brand of rugby and attacking opponents from all areas of the pitch.

“The emphasis will be on being positive and developing our attacking game,” he told the Weekend Witness back in January.

Plumtree hoped that a haul of bonus points and home wins would see them to the play-offs. But, of course, it has gone horribly wrong with two Durban defeats already and not even the vaguest hint of a bonus point for tries. And, on the evidence of yesterday’s display, it is difficult to see how they will fashion any tries in the future.

The down-to-earth Plumtree is the last one to offer excuses — so we will.

The Sharks coach had planned to build his attacking game around a talented and lively halfback pairing of scrumhalf Ruan Pienaar and a world-class flyhalf, Juan Martin Hernandez. The loss of the skilful Hernandez, and then replacement Steve Meyer, along with the injury to Pienaar, severely disrupted his build-up to the season. It also forced him to field Pienaar at flyhalf when he did return to action.

The results have been disastrous with the backs failing to gel as a unit and making little headway on attack. Pienaar is still settling in at flyhalf; Adi Jacobs has played most of his rugby at outside centre but he is being used at 12 to accommodate Waylon Murray, big and bruising but lacking the finesse and workrate of his first years in senior rugby, while wings Odwa Ndungane and JP Pietersen spend their days chasing kicks and defending.

Their cause has not been helped by scrumhalf Rory Kockott, who has often been slow to the breakdown and then taken his time clearing the ball, allowing the opposing defences to realign.

The off-shoot has been that the Sharks have been unable to exploit the referees’ new take on two of the laws, the first governing off-side at kicks upfield and the second that protects the ball-carrier at the breakdown. Fullback Stefan Terblanche and company have lacked the confidence, the ambition and close support to counter-attack from deep while the Sharks have failed to loosen up and spread ball quickly to their backs from the breakdown.

There have been other problem areas. The scrum has mixed good with bad and the debate over just where John Smit should play, and when, rolls on. The truth is that the Sharks have scrummed better with Smit (or Bismarck du Plessis) at hooker and the improved Jannie du Plessis at tighthead. But that does not suit the dynamics of the team with Smit the influential captain and Bismarck du Plessis, when he behaves himself, a world-class hooker.

The conspiracy theorists will be having a field day with talk of splits and back-biting in the Sharks’ camp. But it will be a major surprise if the Sharks do not find the answer to their problems and gain a number of notable victories later this season. The recovery may take time and, given the three successive defeats, the demands of the overseas tour and their shattered confidence, it is unlikely that they will now make the play-offs

But they have a highly respected coach in Plumtree, they are led by the most experienced captain in Test rugby (Smit) and yesterday’s 22-man squad against the Crusaders contained 16 players who have seen action at international level. Some of them are very obviously former Springboks, but there is certainly enough talent in the squad, and the time to salvage something positive from the season.

Of course, a campaign that started with so much promise and expectation has now become a real test of the Sharks’ character.

“The danger on tour,” says Plumtree, “is if players become really negative and get down on themselves.

John [Smit] and I cannot allow that. That is the real challenge.”

These are indeed dark times, for player and supporter, and particularly as there is no sign of a silver lining … anywhere.

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