Sharks’ early sparkle fades, now for the Currie Cup

2011-07-02 00:00

THE Sharks, powerful on paper but less formidable on grass, dragged themselves through another confusing Super Rugby season and failed again to do themselves justice.

Buoyed by their 2010 Currie Cup triumph, backed by a strong coaching team with a positive, coherent game plan and with depth in every area, the Sharks appeared genuine contenders.

They started the competition strongly, but then lost their spark in the middle. Home losses to the Stormers (6-16) and the Bulls (23-32) returned to haunt them as they battled desperately over the last four rounds to advance to the play-offs.

It was only when they were firmly backed against the wall, needing to beat the in-form Bulls on an emotional night at Loftus in the final round, that they suddenly found their old intensity and flair.

Their 26-23 victory knocked the champions out of the competition, but the sixth-placed Sharks faced an impossible mission to far-off Nelson to face the Crusaders. The seven-time champions are ruthless, clinical opponents who thrive in playoff situations, and no one seemed too surprised when the travel-weary Sharks failed to reproduce their Loftus heroics and were beaten 38-6.

Coach John Plumtree admitted the Sharks had failed to light up the tournament, but added he was proud they at least qualified for the playoffs.

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

Of course, reaching the playoff stages in the toughest of competitions against quality teams was commendable enough, but certainly the Sharks’ players and supporters expected more.

There was no shortage of talent in the squad and the Sharks started against the Crusaders in Nelson with 14 internationals and lock Gerhard Mostert the only uncapped player.

But the Sharks’ most consistent feature was their inconsistency and they seldom played with the conviction and intensity of potential champions.

While their new, if experienced, midfield pairing of new signing Meyer Bosman and veteran Stefan Terblanche struggled both on attack and defence, they were operating behind a forward pack that failed to create continuity and momentum. The high-tempo game, which had brought out the best in halves Pat Lambie and Charl McLeod in the 2010 Currie Cup, went missing as a result and the Sharks were left playing far too much rugby in their own half and behind the advantage line.

For most of the tournament the Sharks struggled in the lineouts, and when the physicality of their big men, Willem Alberts, Bismarck du Plessis and Beast Mtawarira, was matched on the gainline — by the Stormers (twice), the Bulls and the Crusaders — the rest of their game fell away.

The Sharks had the ideal start, winning their opening four games against the Cheetahs and Blues in Durban and the Force and the Rebels on the road.

But their travels took a heavy toll. They were beaten by the Chiefs in Hamilton and the Crusaders in London before returning home and losing to the Stormers (twice) and the Bulls in a six-week period.

The final weeks were a desperate struggle for a playoff spot and they needed to win three of their remaining four games, including a win over the Bulls in Pretoria, to squeeze into the top six.

They achieved that objective and Loftus produced their most memorable moments of the season. But it was too little too late and their supporters were again left ruing what might have been.

Now they look ahead to defending their Currie Cup title — they open against the Blue Bulls in Durban on July 16 — and they can do so with some optimism. The domestic competition will be played without any Rugby World Cup Springboks and Plumtree will have to dig into the reserves. But Plumtree, in recent seasons, has shown his quality in bringing out the best in the Sharks reserves and marrying their talents to those of the many Springboks of previous years.

He is certain to lose JP Pietersen, Pat Lambie, captain John Smit, Beast Mtawarira, Jannie and Bismarck du Plessis, and Willem Alberts to the Springboks while Lwazi Mvovo could also challenge for a place.

But Ryan Kankowski, Alistair Hargreaves, Adi Jacobs and Odwa Ndungane are likely to miss out on Bok selection and will add to the depth of Plumtree’s squad. And, of course, he now has Marius Joubert, the former Bok centre, to add some pace and variety to the midfield.

Plumtree could still field a Currie Cup team rich in Super Rugby experience: Louis Ludik at fullback, Mvovo and Ndungane on the wings, a choice between Marius Joubert, Stefan Terblanche, Adi Jacobs and Meyer Bosman in midfield, Freddie Michalak at flyhalf with Jacqus-Louis Potgieter as back-up, Charl McLeod at scrumhalf — Conrad Hoffman returns soon from injury — backrowers Kankowski, Keegan Daniel, Jean Deysel and Jacques Botes, and a second-row of Hargreaves, Ross Skeate and, if he stays for the year, Gerhard Mostert.

The loss of four Boks — Smit, Mtawarira and the Du Plessis brothers, would leave the Sharks thin in the front-row, leaving props Eugene van Staden and Wiehahn Herbst to carry a heavy load, but at least patient hooker Craig Burden would finally be given a decent run.

The Sharks have the talent and — as they showed at Loftus a fortnight ago — the tactical nous and drive to mount a spirited defence of their Currie Cup title.

Now they have to find the consistency and intensity that proved so frustratingly elusive in Super Rugby 2011.

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