Rugby gods were frowning...

2013-08-03 00:00

THE Sharks’ 2013 Super Rugby season will be remembered for all the wrong reasons — the horrific injury toll, the patchy form of high profile players, a disappointing mid-table finish and, finally, the undignified, late-season ditching of their head coach.

The Sharks, finalists in 2012, had every reason to start the year in an optimistic mood. Their squad was stronger and more settled, their coherent playing style had taken them to three finals in a year, and they had a successful, experienced coaching staff.

But it all went horribly wrong before a shot had been fired in anger. Their most influential forwards, Bismarck du Plessis and Willem Alberts, were missing from the start and the pre-season friendly against the Leopards at Woodburn Stadium ended centre Tim Whitehead’s campaign, while captain Keegan Daniel, also injured that night, never quite captured his 2012 form when he did return.

It set the mood for a disjointed season, a long saga of injury, change and plugging holes with players out of position or from other franchises.

The Sharks were unconvincing to startwith, but they still managed to grind out early wins, beating the Cheetahs in Bloemfontein and then the Stormers and Crusaders in Durban, and they led the South African conference until round seven.

But the injury toll kept mounting and the Sharks had between 10 and 15 players sidelined for most of their campaign. Without any continuity in selection, the attack suffered and they played with little momentum as their big, ball-carrying forwards watched from the sidelines.

The form of their senior players still standing suffered in a changing squad, resulting in close games being lost because of missed kicks, or passes that were not made at critical moments.

Certainly, the Sharks should have beaten the Bulls both home and away while the narrow losses to the Cheetahs in Durban and the lowly, struggling Highlanders — to hand them their first win of the season — effectively ended their challenge.

The rugby gods frowned on the Sharks from beginning to end as Pierre Spies, the Bulls captain, pointed out after his side had squeaked to an 18-16 win at King’s Park late in May.

“You just don’t know when injury is going to hit. You do need luck in this long competition and we [the Bulls] have been fortunate with injuries and the Sharks have not.”

(Ironically, a bicep injury against Samoa just weeks later ended Spies’s year).

In contrast to the Sharks, the Cheetahs had a small squad, but they had few injuries and they underlined the value of continuity as they advanced to the play-offs.

The Sharks’ coaches were reluctant to keep banging on about the injuries, but there was no escaping the impact it had as Plumtree was forced to call up 43 players during the campaign and 24 of them were sidelined, many with fractures and torn muscles, at some point during this season. Significantly, 17 players and half-a-dozen Springboks, were unavailable for five games or more.

Was it just a horrendous run of bad luck or was it wear and tear with the Sharks suffering more than most because of the number of overplayed Springboks in their squad?

Obviously, a variety of factors contributed to the Sharks’ failure to realise their potential, but there was the usual parrot-cry for a scapegoat (to mix metaphors).

From far-off London, incoming Sharks CEO John Smit provided one and Plumtree, after five finals in six years, was the fall guy. He parted pockets bulging, but justifiably aggrieved.

The abruptness of the decision, and the uncertainty surrounding the appointment of the replacement coaching staff, added to the confusion hanging over Sharks’ rugby.

Brendan Venter was initially named as the new coach of the Sharks (and director of rugby) and Smit said that Brad Macleod-Henderson was to take charge of the forwards with Sean Everitt running the backs.

Venter has since played down his new role, saying that he would act as mentor who would be grooming Brad Macleod-Henderson for the job as head coach.

Either way it is a brave, some will say foolish, move with a brand new coaching staff answering to a boss who is commuting from Cape Town and also has two other jobs.

But Smit is determined to create something good and clean and fresh for the players and supporters, and is confident that Venter can do for the Sharks what he has done for Saracens.

“I’ve seen first-hand what Brendan can do,” Smit says. “He’s created something quite special at Saracens in terms of rugby environment and the environment off the field as well. It’s something that appealed to me and the reason why I contracted him.”

Venter says he wants every person who is involved with the Sharks to become a more rounded person — “trophies will come if you create an environment that is special”.

The weekly demands on the Cape-based Venter will be massive as he juggles his rugby commitments in Durban and London with his medical practice and young family in Somerset West.

Four days of the week will be spent with the Sharks (three days of preparation before the weekend game), with Wednesdays and Fridays at his medical practice. And once a month he has to squeeze in a trip to London to fulfil his Saracens’ obligations.

Venter says the weekly routine, starting with a 4 am wake-up call on a Monday, will be “hectic” and that is something of an understatement — and he has to keep going for three months. He takes his inspiration from a Braveheart quote: “All men die, a few men truly live, and if we don’t try things we will never know what we can achieve.”

The 43-year-old Venter is respected internationally for his rugby nous, but is a feisty character and has bumped British media, and the English Rugby Football Union on a number of occasions. He plans to keep a low profile in Durban, but, like it or not, he will be in the spotlight as he attempts to put Smit’s ambitious plan into practice. It will take stamina, determination and a love of air travel.

And, just as a closing thought, the Sharks could have done with Venter during their 2013 injury-ravaged campaign — his medical background would have been invaluable.

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