This Plum is ripe for plucking

2010-10-23 00:00

IF there was any common sense in South African rugby, someone with clout would be knocking on John Plumtree’s door and begging him to help coach the Springboks in their hour of need.

Springbok coach Peter de Villiers, after a year of discontent and defeat, literally doesn’t know whether he is coming or going.

Not only is De Villiers’s position as head coach under threat, but attempts by the Bok coach to dump his assistants, Gary Gold and Dick Muir, failed because no one else wanted their jobs.

John Mitchell, Rassie Erasmus, Heyneke Meyer, Frans Ludeke and Allister Coetzee were all apparently approached, but ran for cover.

Meanwhile, down in far-off Durban, Plumtree has been going about his business, guiding the Sharks to the top of the Currie Cup log for three years in a row. That, in usual round robin competition, would be a hat-trick of titles, but not in South Africa where a league suddenly becomes a knock-out.

Still, after victory over the Blue Bulls in the 2008 final, the Sharks have a chance of taking the Currie Cup title for the second time in three years when they meet Western Province in Durban next Saturday.

Yet Plumtree’s achievements, his obvious qualities as a coach and the respect he enjoys among the players, appear to pass unnoticed, at least outside the province.

Plumtree has enjoyed a remarkable run since March — and after the disastrous Super 14 start. After losing their first five games — some controversially and by the narrowest of margins — the Sharks won seven of their next eight games.

The Sharks were then victors in 10 of their 14 Currie Cup games, topped the log and beat the Bulls in the semi-final.

It is not only the record of 18 wins in the last 23 outings which is so impressive, but rather the way that Plumtree has had the Sharks playing to their strengths, adopting a forward-based style in the Super 14 and then changing to a high-tempo, expansive approach in the Currie Cup.

No one can claim that Plumtree is one-dimensional in his approach or that he is not prepared to adapt to changing times.

During the Super 14, after he lost first Juan Hernandez and then Steve Meyer on the eve of the tournament, Plumtree was up the creek without a backline. The tries dried up, defeat followed defeat and the detractors gleefully predicted that the Sharks, divided and unhappy, were on the path to oblivion.

Plumtree found other ways to win matches, turning away from a willing but largely impotent backline and using the Sharks’ big ball-carrying forwards to grind out victories and salvage pride with an impressive string of victories.

The Sharks coach, never one to look for a bush to beat around, was typically honest and blunt about the limitations of his team.

Speaking after the Sharks had driven their way to a 30-28 win over the Queensland Reds, he said he was envious of the attacking skills of the Australians.

“We just haven’t got the runners, the steppers. We are not a flash team, but the Reds are.”

Plumtree also pointed out that his backs were struggling because of the new law interpretations which had led to crowded defensive lines.

“This has forced us to look at other ways to break down the opposition. We have to be more blunt in our attack by using our big forwards, like Bismarck du Plessis, Willem Alberts, Jean Deysel and John Smit, to carry the ball and disrupt the opposition.”

The Sharks, in the second half of the Super 14, adapted superbly and they ended the season out of the play-offs but with their heads high.

Plumtree promised that the team’s make-over and the return to tactics of a previous era were temporary. He wanted to exploit the new law interpretations and so he set about remodelling the Sharks’ style of play for the Currie Cup and based it on a lively, high-intensity, attacking game.

It resulted in important changes, particularly in the backline. Needing the ball to be cleared quickly from scrum and breakdown, Plumtree dropped scrumhalf Rory Kockott for Charl McLeod. The 19-year-old Pat Lambie, playing fullback, was identified as a natural flyhalf with excellent distributing skills and vision, and he was switched, via inside centre, to become the team’s pivot.

The pace and industry of Keegan Daniel and the athletic running of Ryan Kankowski complemented the power of Willem Alberts at loose forward. And with the changes, Plumtree introduced the rapid, ball-in-the-hand approach and laid a heavy emphasis on quickly-won tackle ball.

Tries arrived in a rush. The Sharks were up and running.

In the Super 14, the Sharks were the worst attacking side in the competition with only 23 tries in 13 games; in the Currie Cup, they were the most potent, crossing for 62 tries in 14 games. And, while their big men were their chief attackers in the Super 14, it was wing Lwazi Mvovo (12), Odwa Ndungane (9) and tearaway flank Keegan Daniel (9) who scored the most Currie Cup tries.

The style of rugby was not only successful but also highly entertaining, with almost no kicking and a number of tries fashioned from deep in their own territory.

By nature, this style of rugby carries risks. There is little margin for error and players have to be precise and accurate. It can also be predictable if the opponents know that every piece of possession will be run back at them, while opposition goal-kickers like Morné Steyn are brought into the game when too much rugby is played in the Sharks’ half.

However, nothing should detract from what Plumtree has already achieved with his brave approach this season. He deserves the reward of a Currie Cup title next weekend; he deserves to be recognised at the highest level of the game and, boy, could he do a job for Springbok rugby.

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