Sharks hit rock bottom

2015-04-09 00:00

TOO many chiefs and not enough Indians — and we’re talking Sharks rugby here and not sporting quotas.

The Sharks, crowded with a dozen ­internationals but playing like schoolboys (or pensioners, take your pick), were handed the most painful of lessons by the Crusaders. We took consolation that the Sharks had reached rock bottom against the Force the previous ­Saturday; wrong again as they plumbed fresh depths against the seven-time champions.

The Sharks’ timing was all wrong as they saved their worst for a home Easter weekend crowd in a high-profile game against the most successful team in the history of the competition.

But wait, there’s more.

This was a special occasion, the launch of the Legacy Campaign. The Sharks have teamed up with the Organ Donor Foundation of South ­Africa (ODF) and they wore special “Forever Fans” jerseys to honour the event.

Ironically, the jersey was predominantly white which, as someone cruelly remarked — and cynicism is running high in these parts — is the international symbol of surrender. And that is precisely what the Sharks did against the Crusaders.

It was a nightmare from beginning to end. The Crusaders crossed twice in the opening minutes and then rounded off with try number eight on the final hooter. And, in between, there was a red card for Sharks flank Jean Deysel and a neck vertebrae injury to captain Pat Lambie, which will sideline the Springbok flyhalf for six weeks.

Deysel has been hit with a seven-week ban and he joins two other senior Springboks, ­Bismarck du Plessis and Frans Steyn, who are already serving lengthy suspensions. The Sharks, in crisis, are now suddenly without ­half-a-dozen of their most experienced and ­valuable Springboks.

Had Saturday’s contest taken place at nearby Greyville, there would have been a stewards’ ­inquiry. The Sharks were lagging so far behind from the off that it would have been no surprise had coach Gary Gold charged on to the field after the first five minutes to tell his players that the game had started.

The Sharks lacked effort, intensity and ­urgency. They made no effort to close down the Crusaders, they stood off the rucks, their backs waited for the New Zealanders to run at them, their alignment in defence was all over the shop and they kept gifting the ball back to the ­Crusaders’ counter-attackers with their aimless kicking. All Black fullback Israel Dagg was like a kid in a candy store.

No one seems to know quite what happened at King’s Park at 3 pm on Saturday but there is no shortage of opinion. Some claim the Sharks left their game on the training pitch, ­others reckon they were over-anxious while the more general view is that they have too many watching elders and too few workers.

Their disciplinary failings suggest an absence of strong leadership, both on the field and in the change-room, particularly as the red cards are being handed to leaders in the squad.

It is becoming increasingly obvious that we are now reaping what the Sharks board of ­predominantly businessmen naively sowed in mid-2013 when they attempted to fix what was not broken. The Night of the Long Knives saw the purge of senior staff at King’s Park, leaving a vacuum and we are all suffering.

Players have had to adapt as coaches have come and gone, the rugby has deteriorated and crowds have dwindled. The Sharks have lost their style, their joie de vivre and attraction. ­Durban is no longer the preferred destination for budding young players.

Tactically, the Sharks appear confused, ­uncertain whether they should be kicking the ball or running with it. Either way, they are playing without conviction, kicking poorly out of hand or running laterally and ineffectively when they attempt to move the ball.

Their limitations were exposed not only by the Crusaders in Durban but also by the Lions who played immediately after them at Ellis Park on Saturday evening.

The Lions beat the Bulls after the final hooter and they were everything the Sharks were not. The Sharks started with 12 internationals but lacked cohesion, commitment and a coherent game plan; the unheralded Lions took the field without any current Springboks but were ­enthusiastic, ambitious and single-minded in playing expansive rugby. They made their tackles, covered for their team-mates and scrambled in defence. They are happy in their work and play for each other.

What makes this even more painful is that the Lions management team, their leaders, were once heavily involved with the Sharks and are all King’s Park exports: Rudolf Straeuli is the Lions CEO, Johann Ackermann and Swys de Bruin are their coaches and Glenwood High’s Warren Whiteley is their cheerful captain.

(While on this tack, sacked Sharks coach John Plumtree is continuing to flourish. After helping Ireland to their Six Nations triumph last year, he joined the Hurricanes and the unbeaten Wellington franchise are presently the Super Rugby log-leaders. Ouch!)

In the corresponding game last year, the ­14-man Sharks — Deysel was again the player red-carded — gained historic 30-25 win over the Crusaders in Christchurch. But that is now a distant memory and there was not a hint of that resolve on Saturday.

The Sharks were sailing along serenely enough in 2013 when all the rushed repairs were carried out; today they are leaking badly, rapidly taking on water and CEO John Smit and coach Gold face a massive test of their leadership ­qualities.

It has left to the embattled Gold — in ­between disciplinary hearings — to explain to an incredulous public and media why the season and senior players are disappearing without trace.

And lying in wait at Ellis Park are the lively, confident Lions. Gold can do little more this week than mutter the famous words of Henry Kissinger that there cannot be another crisis as his schedule is already full.

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