High expectations for Sharks

2011-11-05 00:00

EXPECTATIONS run high in these parts. The Sharks’ 2011 achievements, first in advancing to this year’s quarter-finals of Super Rugby and then the final of the Currie Cup, were not enough to satisfy their supporters, the coaching staff or, indeed, themselves.

The Sharks’ Currie Cup season mirrored their Super Rugby campaign with their potential on paper not matched by their performances on grass. The Sharks were crowded with internationals, but in the final analysis the senior players outside the Rugby World Cup squad did not do themselves justice.

The Boks returning after the RWC provided a late flourish to the Sharks’ Currie Cup challenge, but even they could not salvage the season as the 2010 champions stumbled at the final hurdle.

The Sharks, with Springboks to-ing and mostly fro-ing throughout the Currie Cup season, had obvious problems as their form see-sawed. There were brief patches of sublime rugby, but generally John Plumtree’s squad lacked the continuity, confidence and composure of champions.

A curious feature of the Sharks’ season was their struggle against the smaller unions. They beat the Blue Bulls (35-16), but were fortunate to edge the Pumas 23-22 in Nelspruit. A nine-point home victory over Free State and a 21-19 away win over Western Province at Newlands sandwiched a heavy 44-23 loss to Griquas in Kimberley.

It was a trend which was to continue throughout the season with the most significant setback a limp 10-15 loss to an even younger WP team in Durban in the second round. It cost the Sharks any chance of topping the log for the fourth successive year and lost them a vital home-ground advantage for the final.

A fortnight later and the Springboks were back with the Sharks and immediately the mood was lifted. A crushing 53-9 win over the log-leading Lions, admittedly short of players and incentive, cemented their second place on the log and a week later they hosted the Free State Cheetahs in the semi-finals.

The Sharks stuttered through the first half (3-13), but the experience and robust approach of their senior players told in the second and 17 unanswered points took them to a 20-13 win and into the final against the Lions.

Sharks coach John Plumtree welcomed the late lifeline thrown his team by the Springboks and he finally had players capable of controlling the set pieces and the gainline. This buoyed the confidence of those around them and the Sharks were able, belatedly, to return to a familiar game.

Plumtree admitted that re-integrating the Springboks at the fag-end of the season was always going to be a problem. So it proved in the Ellis Park final as the Sharks’ star-studded line-up failed to match the Lions’ cohesive team effort on the day and they were well beaten.

Plumtree has since taken flak for replacing youngsters, who had played most of the Currie Cup season, with RWC Springboks in the final weeks. But these critics have short memories. In truth, the Sharks of 2011, without their Boks, were a pale imitation of the team which had played high tempo, effective rugby to take the title the previous year. Without a solid forward platform until the closing weeks, they looked anything but potential champions and the reintroduction of the RWC Springboks was Plumtree’s only hope of salvaging the season. The big-name players helped the Sharks dominate possession and territory in the Ellis Park final but they lost because they did not take their scoring chances (and the clinical Lions did).

Continuity was obviously a major problem for the Sharks and Plumtree throughout the season. The Sharks had 12 players representing the Springboks at various stages and six others were sidelined by injury for extended periods. Over 40 players were used during the competition and 13 of them were in their debut Currie Cup season.

The midfield proved a major and surprising headache for Plumtree right up to the final as he fielded a variety of high-profile combinations — featuring former Boks Stefan Terblanche, Adi Jacobs, Meyer Bosman and Marius Joubert — without ever being able to settle on an effective one.

But it was the injury to the bustling, urgent and snappy scrumhalf Charl McLeod for the second half of the season that was the most damaging. Conrad Hoffman was brave and willing, but at times his service was sluggish and hesitant. The Sharks’ backline simply never gelled as a unit.

The one positive spin-off of the many Springbok commitments was that a number of young players, mostly among the forwards, were blooded and they will add to the Sharks’ depth next year.

The busy 20-year-old flank, Marcell Coetzee, enjoyed an excellent debut season while Dale Chadwick, Wiehahn Herbst, Craig Burden and Anton Bresler performed strongly and the high work rate of lock Ross Skeate was impressive.

The Sharks lost their two most experienced and loyal players (and captains) at the end of the season with John Smit, after 15 years’ service, joining Saracens and Stefan Terblanche’s contract ending after 14 years, but the other senior players will all be back.

Early new signings for 2012 are Griquas fullback Riaan Viljoen and young WP centre Tim Whitehead, and Plumtree will be looking to them to help spark the underperforming Sharks backline.

After the Crusaders (and Bryce Lawrence) ended their Super Rugby challenge in June, Plumtree said the Sharks had failed to light up the tournament, but added he was proud they at least qualified for the play-offs.

“We were always looking for a big, big game at some point. I congratulated the players for producing it in the 18th round [against the Bulls at Loftus],” he added with a smile and a hint of sarcasm.

He could have said much the same at the end of the Currie Cup.

The Sharks have the talent to bounce back in 2012 with a hefty pack, an effective blend of loose forwards and backs who will surely realise their obvious potential after the failings of this season. And, without the usual distraction of an end-of-the-year Springbok tour to Europe, Plumtree will have time to work with fresh, injury-free players ahead of the Super Rugby tournament.

Come February 2012 and the Sharks’ players, the coaching staff and the supporters will be back where they were exactly a year before. Expectations will be running high again in this part of the world.

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