Sharks will return wiser

2009-05-10 00:00

RUGBY, for those who play or watch, remains a crazy game. It captivates and frustrates; it can be charming and brutal. And rugby showed all its faces at King’s Park last Saturday night, dragging the combatants and spectators through the full circle of emotions before abandoning the Sharks at the last turn.

History teaches that history teaches us nothing and this year’s Sharks took us back to an action replay of 2004, a time when they made a pig’s ear of another promising campaign with major advances on foreign fields negated by humbling defeat at home.

In 2004, in the Super 12 (with 11 fixtures), the Sharks won five of their first seven games — three on the road — and had the semi-finals in sight when they promptly lost their last four matches, all at home, to finish eighth. This year they were steaming along as log-leaders with seven wins (four away from home) from eight outings only to lose four of their last five games to end sixth. The meagre haul of eight points from the last five games ended their challenge. Much has been made of their paucity of bonus points but it was the run of three home defeats in four rounds which finally killed them off.

The class of 2009 failed because they lost focus and urgency at a time when they were expected to peak at home and chase down a Durban semi-final. The air is thick with theories as we seek a convenient scapegoat. Some of the reasons cited for the Sharks’ sad and rapid demise were injury to two key players — playmaker Ruan Pienaar and the bludgeoning Jean Deysel; the heavy demands of travelling and playing on 10 successive Saturdays before the relief of a bye; a lack of quality cover in the squad; and the conservative, kicking-based game plan.

If history does show us anything, it is that sporting failure, particularly in a team game, is usually a combination of factors rather than a single event which results in failure.

Certainly the backline disruptions blunted the Sharks’ attacking edge and the players, at the fag end of a long haul, were jaded and lacked intensity. Mentally and physically, they looked tired and it showed in their tardy defence.

“The injuries really disrupted us,” said head coach John Plumtree as he reflected this week on the see-saw season. “The records show it was the worst injury run we have had with 24% of those sidelined out for six weeks or more.”

One of the results, he added, was that the team selected itself every weekend.

“There was not the competition for places that you need to maintain sharpness. We did not have the quality in reserve and we were unable to freshen up battered players who should have been rotated.”

It was a problem that was identified at the start of the season. The Sharks had a high quality backline with Kockott, Pienaar, Steyn and Jacobs at nine, 10, 12 and 13, but injury to any one of the four would leave them vulnerable. And so it proved with Pienaar and then Frans Steyn sidelined and a season-long injury to centre Waylon Murray compounding their problems.

There is also the thought that the Sharks, who performed so well on the road, might have taken their foot off the accelerator and taken success for granted once they returned to their home comforts.

“Perhaps there was an element of complacency but we still had a squad that should have reached the play-offs after what we achieved early on,” said Plumtree. He also believes there might have been a hangover from the Currie Cup triumph.

“We thought we had found the winning way but, in the end, it was not good enough and when the injuries came we imploded. We remain a major force in South African rugby but we are short of where we have to be to win on the world stage.”

A lack of ambition also cost the Sharks. It was only when it was too late, in that frenetic, desperate effort to beat the Bulls and salvage a play-off spot, that we saw the Sharks playing the rugby of which they are capable. Belatedly, fullback Stefan Terblanche started sparking counterattacks instead of kicking and suddenly wings JP Pietersen and Odwa Ndungane were involved.

When the Sharks adopt a high tempo, ball-in-the-hand game plan, with mobile forwards integrated with backs, they look a highly potent unit. The trick, of course, is to mix and match that approach with strong work in the set pieces and an accurate kicking game. And you need astute decision-makers in key areas to produce that balance.

The bottom line is that the Sharks’ Super 14 was a massive disappointment. Apart from the lateness of the bye, they had the perfect draw, they are soundly coached and they have the right mix of Springboks, young and old. And when they started with a flourish, it should have been their year. Instead, they were undone first by defeats to teams 13 and 14 on the log and then limp form at home where they had been unbeaten in 2008. “We have to work on quality player back-up in key areas,” said Plumtree, “but the players also have to be more positive in their intent. That is a lesson the players must take into the future.”

Next year the Sharks will be back with a tougher draw but, said Plumtree, they will be wiser and, we trust, prepared to express themselves more eloquently on attack.

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