Sharks’ recipe for success

2010-11-06 00:00

SHARKS coach John Plumtree transformed a Super 14 nightmare into a dream Currie Cup campaign in Durban last Saturday. And he did it his way.

The Sharks’ second premier domestic title in three years was achieved not by a single-minded, conservative, one-dimensional grind to the top, but by playing ambitious, invigorating rugby and blending panache with dollops of courage.

The Sharks’ year started with five successive Super 14 losses, but ended in triumph as they topped the Currie Cup log and then dumped the Super 14 finalists in the play-offs, first the Blue Bulls (16-12) and then Western Province (30-10), on their way to the title.

Plumtree’s flyhalf woes in the Super 14 hurt him tactically, but he had no such problems in the Currie Cup with the skilful teenager Pat Lambie switched from fullback to flyhalf providing attacking nous. The result was that the Sharks were able to embrace Plumtree’s ambitious, innovative, high intensity, ball-in-the-hand approach.

It paid rich dividends as the Sharks won all their home games, scored the most tries in the league competition (62) and, crucially, earned them home ground advantage and invaluable support when it mattered most.

The Sharks’ unassailable lead at the top of the Currie Cup log ahead of the final round of league competition also allowed him to travel to Newlands with a watered-down team. Key players (Willem Alberts, Keegan Daniel and Charl McLeod) were rested while Plumtree tinkered with several experimental combinations, with Lambie back at fullback and Andre Pretorius paired with Rory Kockott at halfback.

Province came away with an impressive win, but it was a result that suited the Sharks rather well. Not only did it help Plumtree in his selection for the play-offs, but it provided his players with a timely wake-up call.

There is also the lingering impression that Province read far more into the Newlands win than they should have and they were lulled into believing that the Sharks, in the final, would again be a soft touch..

The opposite proved true, and the Sharks, with their regulars back at loose forward and halfback, surprised Schalk Burger’s team with their physicality and organisation in taking the title.

Plumtree and his captain Stefan Terblanche have emphasised that victory was fashioned by a strong team ethic and that the Sharks lacked the flashy individual talents of teams like Province and the Bulls.

Their views seemed to be endorsed at the SA Rugby Union awards banquet on Monday night when the only fellow from Shark country to be recognised was referee Craig Joubert.

(You would like to think that had the voting taken place after the Currie Cup final — and not a fortnight before — Lambie, and not Elton Jantjies, would have been voted the best young player. And surely either Frans Ludeke, after the Bulls’ Super 14 heroics, or Plumtree, with the Currie Cup back in Durban, would have beaten Province’s Allister Coetzee to the Coach of the Year award.)

The Sharks’ unbreakable team spirit showed in their defence with the players queueing up to make tackles when they were under the cosh against both the Bulls and Province.

But, of course, they also had their individual heroes. A solid tight five and the return of the Springboks, the muscular Du Plessis brothers, Bismarck and Jannie, and Beast Mtawarira, was significant in the final weeks, while the maturing lock Alistair Hargreaves continued to make positive strides.

But the Sharks’ most influential players were at loose forward and halfback.

Flank Keegan Daniel, just 94 kg, made a massive impact in all areas. Had the opportunistic Griqua wing Bjorn Basson not broken the Currie Cup record for most tries in a season (21), in spite of playing in a team that finished out of the top four, Daniel would surely have been the player of the competition.

His fellow flank, Willem Alberts, who is 25 kg heavier, created havoc, blasting holes through opposition ranks whether or not he had the ball.

The slickness of scrumhalf Charl McLeod, his pace in attacking gaps around the fringes and in his snappy service to Lambie, were also features of the new playing style.

Lambie, of course, enjoyed a sublime season and has dominated the headlines, while wing Lwazi Mvovo, strong, fast and alert, led the Sharks’ try-scorers (with 12) and in just a season played himself into the Bok squad.

But no one epitomised the commitment of the young Sharks more than rejuvenated centre Andries Strauss, who made the biggest hits, on backs and forwards, in the Currie Cup. Plumtree is not the only one regretting that Strauss’s resurgence came after he had signed for Free State.

Daniel, Alberts, Mcleod, Lambie, Strauss and Mvovo were key players in the Currie Cup triumph and yet not one was a Springbok before the night of the final.

There were others who should not be forgotten, players like Jacques Botes, Craig Burden, Eugene van Staden and Riaan Swanepoel, who were only on the bench for the final, but also contributed invaluably to the campaign.

What Province could not handle in the final was the Sharks’ intensity and sheer bloody-mindedness. Written off, again, by the pundits in Cape Town, Pretoria and Johannesburg, the Sharks rode a strong wave of emotion. The underdog tag helped, along with the vocal home support and the words of Strauss before his last game, but it was the death on the very eve of the final of John Mudgeway that drew the players together.

The former DHSOB centre, who also played for Natal, was close to fellow-New Zealander Plumtree and assistant coach Grant Bashford , but he was also a friend and supporter of the Sharks players who played the final for him.

Province came to the final with high hopes and expecting to impose themselves physically on the Sharks, just as they had at Newlands three weeks earlier.

There were claims from the Province camp that the powerful Springbok flank Schalk Burger, 112kg of muscle and fierce commitment, would ride roughshod over the Sharks’ inexperienced, baby-faced Lambie whenever the young flyhalf took the ball to the gainline.

But after just 13 minutes, and in perhaps the most symbolic moment in a remarkable final, the young Lambie, just days out of his teens, took on the Province pack, brushed past the 116 kg lock Adriaan Fondse and then handed off a sprawling Burger on his way to score a crucial try.

Some things you just cannot take for granted.

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