Well, at least one Kiwi coach is sitting back this week surveying the Super 14 standings with a contented grin on his dial. Well done, John Plumtree.
Marc Hinton writes for RugbyHeaven that Plumtree’s Durban-based Sharks have been, I’d venture, the most impressive side of the opening month of the new Super 14 season. Saturday’s excellent win over the Blues on Eden Park surely put the rubber-stamp on that.
I know the Waratahs have more points but, please, did you watch that match in Sydney against the Chiefs! And the Bulls are travelling nicely enough but, geez, they haven’t left the high veldt yet.
The Sharks have played three of their first four games on the road, two of them in New Zealand, and to be a perfect four-from-four suggests that this crew from Natal are the real deal this year.
They know it too. This is what Plumtree said after arriving in New Zealand when I asked him about the high expectations back home for his Currie Cup champions to translate provincial success on to the Super stage.
“We think we’re a better team now, better prepared. We think we’re fitter. Our expectation of ourselves is higher. What everyone else thinks doesn’t matter, we are putting pressure on ourselves to deliver.”
Does that sound like a side unsure of itself to you?
And what’s to be bashful about? These Sharks have been building away for a while now, adding pieces to the puzzle, gaining in experience, learning how to play together as an effective rugby team.
They were beaten finalists a couple of years ago, and were damned unlucky not to win when they had victory snatched from them in the dying moments by a bizarre sequence of events and a little bit of Bryan Habana magic.
They couldn’t quite repeat the dose last year, but still made it as far as the semifinals before they came unstuck against the Waratahs in Sydney.
But something special has been brewing in Durban. Plumtree has been a big part of that too, the Kiwi first guiding the Natal Sharks to the Currie Cup title last year on the back of a 12-match winning streak. He had them humming by the end of it all.
Now, still under the Kiwi who’s earning his keep in delightful Durban, they’ve won four on the bounce in the Super 14 and the oddsmakers have already installed them as new title favourites.
Why not? They’ve got some form men, from that blockbusting No 8 Ryan Kankowski, to that fleet-footed halfback Rory Kockott, to the slippery Adi Jacobs in midfield, out to the slick Odwa Ndugane on the wing.
There’s oodles of experience too, with John Smit, Johann Muller, Jacques Botes, Ruan Pienaar and Stefan Terblanche bringing a fairly hard-nosed attitude to their work.
And young talent. Bismarck du Plessis is so good the Boks hooker can’t get a start at the moment, we all know how brilliant Francois Steyn is when he gets it right and JP Pietersen is sweet to watch when he’s in full flight.
What they’ve also got is an excellent pack, who don’t budge too far in the tight, execute when they have to and know their way round the breakdown pretty well.
Also, they simply know how to win. Don’t underestimate that quality.
The Sharks showed last week in Hamilton they can win ugly. Guts it out if they have to. And on Saturday, as they stunned the Blues with two tries in each half, they emphatically answered the doubters that wondered whether South African sides could win consistently on Kiwi soil.
Heaven forbid, the Sharks have now rolled the Blues five times in a row. Is that not proof enough of how good these guys are?
The Sharks may not overwhelm teams with their sparkling rugby, but what they do is play a pretty effective brand of kick-and-chase, of feasting off opposition errors, of hitting hard at the breakdown and of playing the percentages.
They also have a swagger about them that suggests they’ve had enough of knocking on the door. They’re coming in!
For all that the Sharks are by no means unbeatable, and the Blues will take something from a match in which, despite their sloppiness, they were still able to get within a score of the South Africans.
There were far too many handling errors and breakdown lapses for the Blues to really trouble the Sharks, but in the end they were possibly only a contentious referee decision (the 10-point swing that saw a blatant offside, and try, missed at one end and the Sharks score at the other) away from a much better result.
All is by no means lost for Pat Lam’s side who still have plenty to do, but have a decent run of home matches ahead to get some form and confidence going. There was enough stickability in the second half at Eden Park to suggest there’s a bit of substance lurking there this year.
It was good to see Ali Williams charging around a rugby field again too, even if the big All Black lock did rather pace himself through much of this return to top rugby in 2009.
It was a long way from Williams at his best – a fact he admitted later, giving himself three out of 10 – but it was nonetheless a step in the right direction for he and the Blues.
If Lam’s men are to be up there challenging the Sharks at the pointy end of this season, they’ll need Williams, and others, firing. Right now they’ve had a good look at the standard required.Tweet