A season to forget for Sharks

2013-06-01 00:00

THE best-laid sporting plans can come horribly, agonisingly unstuck, as head coach John Plumtree and the Sharks have found these past seven weeks.

The Sharks, with good reason, were touted as one of the 2013 Super Rugby favourites, but with four rounds still to be played, they are out of the running for a top-six playoff spot and the post-mortems are already in full swing.

It was back in mid-April that the Sharks appeared to have successfully negotiated the trickiest part of the season. Short of key personnel, lacking forward grunt and playing without any real conviction, they still made the start they wanted with five wins in their first six games.

The future looked bright. They were leading the South African conference in spite of not playing particularly well and the return of half-a-dozen of their injured senior players was surely just around the corner. Their inclusion would bring the continuity and forward power which had been missing in the opening weeks

It never happened. Instead, the Sharks walked into a painful mugging and six defeats in their next seven outings has now left them playing for pride instead of a place in the quarter-finals.

There was genuine reason for the optimism in the Sharks camp when they started planning for the season. Even in hindsight, it was not misplaced. Head coach John Plumtree had gathered together a formidable squad with quality cover in every area.

His first-choice team would probably have read:

15 Louis Ludik, 14 JP Pietersen, 13 Tim Whitehead, 12 Frans Steyn,11 Lwazi Mvovo, 10 Pat Lambie, 9 Charl McLeod, 8 Keegan Daniel (capt), 7 Willem Alberts, 6 Marcell Coetzee, 5 Franco van der Merwe, 4 Pieter-Steph du Toit, 3 Jannie du Plessis, 2 Bismarck du Plessis, 1 Tendai Mtawarira.

And the back-up squad?

15 Riaan Viljoen,14 Odwa Ndungane, 13 Paul Jordaan, 12 Meyer Bosman, 11 S’bura Sithole, 10 Butch James, 9 Cobus Reinach, 8 Ryan Kankowski, 7 Jean Deysel, 6 Jacques Botes, 5 Anton Bresler , 4 Jandre Marais, 3 Wiehahn Herbst, 2 Craig Burden, 1 Allan Dell.

Waiting just off stage were such players as Kyle Cooper, Tera Mtembu and Marius Joubert.

The squad had experience in abundance with 11 players who have played at Springbok level in the A list and another seven in the back-up squad. There was talented youth in the emerging Pieter-Steph du Toit, Paul Jordaan, Tim Whitehead, Cobus Reinach, Kyle Cooper, Wiehahn Herbst and Allan Dell.

Plumtree had settled combinations and strong leadership fore and aft and the players knew they were competitive at the highest level. They had reached their three finals (two in the Currie Cup one in Super Rugby) in a year.

Frustratingly, they had not been able to add to the trophy cabinet, but their advance to the finals was a pat on the back for their coaching staff and an endorsement of their playing style and consistency.

It all looked rather promising until the 2013 Sharks actually took to the field … and promptly started falling over. At no stage during the past three months has Plumtree come close to fielding his strongest team. Influential centre Tim Whitehead and captain Keegan Daniel went down within minutes, suffering injuries in the pre-season friendly at Woodburn Stadium, and they joined the other pre-season casualties, Bismarck du Plessis, Butch James, Willem Alberts, Jean Deysel and Dale Chadwick on the sidelines.

It was just the start of Plumtree’s problems. Frans Steyn, who was expected to play a dominant role in the midfield, was out of condition and form in the early weeks of the season and was dropped to the bench. He was just starting to flex his muscles when he was sidelined by a serious leg injury. Springbok number eight Ryan Kankowski, back from Japan, was subdued and was dumped by Plumtree before the Sharks went on tour. And all the while the injury toll rose as Louis Ludik, Paul Jordaan, Lwazi Mvovo, Jacques Botes, Beast Mtawarira, Allan Dell, Paul Jordaan, Cobus Reinach, Craig Burden, JP Pietersen and, finally, Anton Bresler joined the queue outside the medical room at King’s Park.

Plumtree, who had planned to use the depth in the squad to rotate and freshen up players during the marathon season, was forced to select on fitness rather than form to fill holes.

Prop JC Janse van Rensburg, wing Andries Coetzee (until he, too, was injured) and flank Derick Minnie were borrowed from the Lions and Piet Lindeque arrived from the Bulls. It was an injury merry-go-round, for fractures and torn muscles rather than the usual bumps and bruises.

But in spite of this sorry saga of setbacks, the Sharks should have performed better. On occasions they have lacked intensity and Plumtree, in praising the example set by such youngsters as Du Toit, Cooper and Herbst, questioned the attitude of some of his senior players.

A number of highly-rated players — well, those still standing — have failed to play to their 2012 form. Tighthead Jannie du Plessis, Steyn and Kankowski were sluggish to start, Keegan Daniel has battled throughout to make his usual impact and even halfbacks Pat Lambie and Charl McLeod have lacked the verve and creativity of previous seasons.

The disrupted, patchy Sharks have failed all season to play with any rhythm. Three defeats in matches they should have won — against the Cheetahs and Bulls at home, and the bottom-of-the-log Highlanders in Dunedin — killed off their challenge.

Blame has been spread between coaches and players (with even a deep suspicion of Afrikaners tossed in for good measure), and there will be those who will look to John Smit to arrive in July and start waving a magic wand. Perhaps a medical bag would also be useful.

What the Sharks will hope for next year is a slice of good fortune.

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