Golden age come and gone

2010-04-10 00:00

IT was brave, a wholehearted effort under intense pressure, but the two-point win over the Queensland Reds last Saturday also vividly highlighted what is good and bad in Sharks’ rugby and how radically coach John Plumtree has been forced to change.

There was another time, a golden age when the Beatles were making music, Graeme Pollock was scoring runs and the Currie Cup lived at Kingsmead, when Natal rugby was synonymous with ambitious, creative rugby as flyhalf Keith Oxlee magically pulled tries from a hat.

Harping back to the glorious past is, of course, a yawn; a pointless, irritating exercise because just about everything about the game (and life) has changed.

Still, last Saturday we had a flashback to days of yore with the enterprising Reds doing what Natal once did, while the Sharks played old-fashioned Northern Transvaal rugby to grind out their win.

This is not to criticise the Sharks and their coach Plumtree. He and the players effectively did what they had to do to win the game by changing tack in mid-ocean and playing to their strength, ignoring their backs and turning to their mauling, ball-carrying forwards to see them to safety.

Plumtree, never one to beat about the bush, has said that the Sharks, short of pace, penetration and panache among the backs, have had to adapt and find new ways to win mat­ches.

It is to his credit that the limited Sharks now have three victories on the trot and their huffing and puffing detractors have been beaten back from the door.

The Sharks coach is clearly envious of the creative skills and the side-stepping talents that the Reds have at their disposal behind the scrum.

“We are not a flash team,” he said, adding a moment later, “but the Reds are.”

Time and again the Reds’ Quade Cooper and Digby Ioane twinkle-toed their way through the flat-footed Sharks defences or, if they were caught, off-loaded and put support runners into space.

“We need players who can create space for those around them,” says Plumtree. “We have no steppers and, if we did, I would have them in the Sharks backline.”

While the Sharks are short of attacking skills behind the scrum, as Plumtree points out, the job of the backs has become more difficult because of the new law interpretations.

With the attackers now helped in retaining possession at the tackle, the opposing teams are committing fewer players to the breakdown.

“Defensive lines are now crowded and there is even less space to attack,” says Plumtree. “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, disrupt the opposition and suck in defenders.

“The Stormers and Bulls are doing much the same, but they do also have more gas out wide.”

Cooper, with quick feet and high ambition, did show on Saturday that it is still possible to break down modern defences. But special skills are needed and he has the confidence to take the ball on the gain line and run at defenders who are on their heels.

While he may not have enjoyed the same success against, say, a Henry Honiball or even a Butch James, Cooper certainly carved up the current Sharks’ defence.

Part of the post-mortem on Saturday night was devoted to trying to find a South African “stepper”, a Quade Cooper, a player who can beat opponents one-on-one with the jink or side-step. Brent (“he’s too small”) Russell and Gio Aplon are two but it is not a strong South African trait and most backs in this country opt for the Maori sidestep — the through or over approach — when faced by a tackler.

The irony is that Plumtree started the year with high ambition and spoke of the Sharks’ determination to unveil a style of rugby based on all-out attack, with halfbacks Ruan Pienaar and Juan Martin Hernandez providing an exciting launch pad in the search for bonus points.

It went horribly wrong from the start with the loss of Hernandez resulting in an undignified scramble to find a flyhalf, and the Sharks have never been able to settle.

The Sharks’ back play has also been eroded away in the last two seasons. The loss of Butch James, Brad Barritt and Frans Steyn to lengthy, lucrative overseas contracts has been compounded by the slump in form or fitness of several other exciting talents. The career of Waylon Murray, who was 19 when he made his Super 14 debut and just 21 when played the first of three Tests, has stagnated and Springbok Adi Jacobs, between injuries, has blown hot but mostly cold in recent seasons.

Another victim has been Ruan Pienaar, whose career has stalled after being shunted between scrumhalf and flyhalf to satisfy demands at both Springbok and Super 14 level.

And so Plumtree has been forced to field a workmanlike backline, a line-up of willing, honest toilers who lack the sharp attacking edge, the quick hands and feet, and the straight-running necessary to break down defences.

This all means that the Sharks have had to work exceptionally hard for their tries and their victories (and defeats) have been close, nervous affairs for player and supporter. They have scored just 12 tries in eight Super 14 games to date and now need to win all five remaining games with bonus points (at least 20 tries) to challenge for a semi-final berth.

Their cause in 2010 appears lost, although they will be dangerous mid-table floaters for genuine semi-final contenders like the Bulls, the Stormers and the Blues in the final weeks.

The loss of Hernandez was a mortal blow and we saw on Saturday how dramatically Plumtree has had to change the face of Sharks rugby.

The good news is that the makeover is temporary and the Sharks of old will be back — with lively runners and a fresh style.

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