Starts with smiles, ends in tears

2009-10-24 00:00

THE Sharks’ Currie Cup 2009 season mirrored their Super 14 challenge as a near-perfect campaign ended in tears, recriminations and with head coach John Plumtree admitting his team had underachieved.

The Sharks, just as they had done in the Super 14 at the start of the year, played themselves into pole position in the Currie Cup only to lose the plot when it mattered most.

The Currie Cup was always going to test the depth of the Sharks, the character of their young players and the ability of their coaching staff as Plumtree attempted to cover the yawning gaps left by a dozen missing Springboks. The initial target was to stay in semi-final contention for 10 rounds and then rely on their returning Springboks to provide the quality and momentum for the remaining four rounds and the play-offs.

It all went perfectly to plan, at least initially, and the defending champions exceeded their dreams as they lost just two round-robin games — both to Western Province — and ended top of the log to secure home advantage for the play-offs. With Plumtree able to choose from a full-strength squad for the semi-final, and including 11 internationals in the starting line-up, the Sharks were in pole position to defend their title in their own backyard. But, again, the cheers turned to jeers as the players stumbled badly in losing 23-21 to the Free State Cheetahs in injury time last Saturday.

Those blessed with the 20:20 vision of hindsight have had a field day and Plumtree has been criticised for dumping enthusiastic youth for tired and drained Springboks at the end of a long year. But his selection was understandable and it would certainly have taken a brave coach to have overlooked tested international players like Beast Mtawarira, Bismarck du Plessis, John Smit, Ruan Pienaar and Adi Jacobs against tough, quality opposition in a play-off situation. Plumtree needed his senior players up and firing against teams like the Cheetahs and Blue Bulls if the Currie Cup semi-final and final were to be won.

Plumtree was reluctant to make excuses, but admitted that integrating the Springboks back into the squad has been difficult.

“We did not gel as a side after the Springboks returned as we did last year. There were different reasons, with certain players not as sharp after a long international season, while others were rusty after not having had much rugby. But we had to get them up in a short space of time.”

The players, in the end, failed their coach on semi-final day, but what might well have been a problem was that six of the eight forwards — Ryan Kankowski and Steven Sykes were the exceptions — were recovering from injury and were either short of a gallop or had to overcome late fitness tests. If Plumtree failed anywhere, it was in not staying with match-fit players in the crunch game.

Not only did this disrupt the Sharks’ preparations, but it appeared to blunt their physical edge on the day, and the Cheetahs had a field day at the breakdown and, in the first half, at the scrum.

But in spite of all the Sharks’ many problems on the day, they should still have won. They were ahead on the scoreboard and on top territorially for the last 15 minutes when they again forgot their lessons of the 2007 Super 14 final and kicked away their possession instead of attacking their lead.

For the most part, the Springboks were disappointing and Plumtree said the most positive features of the Currie Cup season were the advances made by the youngsters who have provided the Sharks with genuine depth for 2010. Burly centre Riaan Swanepoel and his midfield partner Andries Strauss, Lwazi Mvovo, hooker Craig Burden, scrumhalves Rory Kockott and Charl McLeod, flank Keegan Daniel and prop Patric Cilliers played energetically in lifting the Sharks to the top of the log.

Argentinian flyhalf Juan Hernandez, signed as a replacement for Frans Steyn, took time to settle, but he underlined his courage and creativity in the semi-final and he will have a pivotal role to play for the Sharks in 2010.

Still, 2009 season will be remembered as the one when Plumtree’s talented squad imploded in both the Super 14 and the Currie Cup. It was a time when the young, emerging players did their job in leading the Sharks into the home straight before handing on to their seniors … who promptly ran out of puff and dropped the baton.

Plumtree said the most positive features of the Currie Cup season were the advances made by the youngsters.

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