It was not a coincidence that the team that won the ABSA Currie Cup was also the one that had the most experienced coach guiding their fortunes.
As someone who covered a big part of his playing career in South Africa, it seems just the other day that John Plumtree was wearing the No7 jersey of the Sharks and taking part in Currie Cup finals for his adopted province.
Gavin Rich writes for SuperRugby that the reality though is that it is now 12 years since the Kiwi stopped playing and for almost all of that intervening period Plumtree has been coaching top level rugby.
Only he and the Swansea directors will know how he came to walk out of his playing career into one of the top coaching jobs in Welsh rugby. But in those initial years of his career as a coach Plumtree made enough of an impression to get a couple of plum jobs back coaching in New Zealand, including Wellington, who he took to the final of the NPC on three occasions.
Plumtree has quite literally travelled the world as a coach, and he has gone through a learning experience that paid off handsomely for the Sharks when they capped their outstanding domestic season with a well deserved win in the final.
Afterwards he was asked many different questions relating to why the Sharks had won, and he gave many different answers. Among the things he pointed to were the Sharks’ recruitment policy and the shift of emphasis back to the youth levels that took place around the time when Dick Muir took over from Kevin Putt in 2005.
Ultimately though what Plumtree has that the others don’t have is experience, and it was his experience that enabled him to take the Sharks to the next level after a couple of years where they played attractive rugby without it proving to be winning rugby.
They do still score some great tries from line movements, but the changes to the Sharks game since Plumtree took over are not at all subtle. The whole approach of the forward pack is more direct, the ball is seldom run down the line before it has been taken into second phase, and the Sharks run from their own territory only when it is really on to do so.
In a nutshell, the Sharks this season played pragmatic rugby, and Springbok coach Peter de Villiers and Muir, who now serves as his assistant, would do well to take note of what type of game was employed by the more successful teams in this year’s Currie Cup.
While the backline play of the beaten finalists, the Blue Bulls, has improved, it is not as though they have abandoned structure or started to run the ball from all over the place. Western Province showed in the full strength phase of the competition that they are the next best team to the Sharks and the Bulls, and this year they were more structured than they have ever been as under Rassie Erasmus they started to recover from the horrors of recent seasons.
Erasmus is one of the rare exceptions to the rule that generally it is experience that makes a coach successful. He has only been at it for a few years, but then he is a freakily gifted rugby genius who is way beyond the parameters of normality.
But while the Sharks turn-around from pretenders to champions is down to the hard-nosed pragmatism of Plumtree, Sharks fans should pay tribute to the man who started it. After all, it was Muir who saw the value of bringing Plumtree back to Durban as an assistant coach, and it was Muir who started the Sharks on the road back to the top.
It is easy to forget where the Sharks were languishing when Muir took over from Kevin Putt. Those were dark days indeed for the Durban union. Within the space of a season, however, Muir’s personality saw the Sharks regain their pride and team spirit, and they were only just denied a place in the Super 14 semi-finals in 2005, when they profited from Muir’s aggressive youth orientated selection policy.
Muir is not an experienced coach in terms of top level experience, and for all his successes initially as a selector and motivator, he might be the first to admit that his personality and positive attitude is probably a bigger strength than his actual coaching.
He also though has a good gut feel, and he saw what value Plumtree could bring to the Sharks through his Kiwi strategies and work ethic, and it was because of this that Plumtree came to be coaching the Sharks. It takes a good coach to recognise where others can off-set your own weaknesses, and on this basis Muir can consider his mate from Taranaki to be his shrewdest selection.Tweet