You know, If you’d told me a few months ago that the Sharks could lose Jean Deysel, Ruan Pienaar and JP Pietersen and STILL beat the Hurricanes comfortably, I’d have said you were completely delusional.
The Sharks team that won the Currie Cup last year, at full strength, was a hell of an outfit. Certainly, the starting 15 boasted huge skill and experience, while the bench featured no fewer than four capped internationals (John Smit, Deon Carstens, Albert van den Berg and Waylon Murray), together with equally impressive names such as Keegan Daniel, Rory Kockott and Brad Barritt. There was plenty of depth and a lot of continuity – especially during the amazing 10-game unbeaten run that took the team to the title.
Going into the opening round of this year’s Super 14, though, the picture looked slightly different – let’s be honest, in fact it looked a fair bit bleaker. Barritt and Fred Michalak were gone and Waylon Murray was injured, effectively decimating the backline replacement options. Ruan Pienaar was pressed into service at flyhalf, bringing rookie Ross Cronjé straight up from the under 19 ranks onto the Super 14 bench. Riaan Swanepoel seemed a logical replacement for Barritt, while the completely untested Luzuko “Bazooka” Vulindlu was called upon to deputise for Murray as the outside back replacement. Amongst the forwards, the picture was slightly better, with only van den Berg ruled out for the initial stages. Alistair Hargreaves was the man identified to fill the void.
John Plumtree started off doing what any sensible coach would, given a completely untested bench. He opted to use his starting 15, together with the few experienced replacements, as much as possible. It was a frustrating time for the youngsters on the bench, though, as they collected match jeryey after match jersey with nary a grass-stain between them. The perils of the approach were all to visible in the last half-hour against the Lions – a whole slew of the youngsters ended up on the park in one go and destroyed the rhythm of the team, costing the Sharks vital bonus-point in the process. The cautious approach was not to be an option for long though, as first Deysel, then Hargreaves and then Pienaar went down with serious injuries on tour.
Deysel’s loss looked the potentially most serious, as there was no obvious replacement for his bulk and fire in the extended squad. Keegan Daniel stepped up manfully, though, and proved his versatility in adapting to yet another unfamiliar role. Hargreaves’s season-ending ankle injury, somewhat fortunately, coincided with van den Berg’s return and the forwards have only grown stronger as the campaign progresses. Having five internationals to call on in the front row, coupled with a pair of incredibly hard-working tight locks in Joe Muller and Steven Sykes has helped, although one can’t help but feel that Deysel’s presence is going to be immense when he returns in 3 weeks’ time.
It’s amongst the backs, though, that the real miracle has occurred, as first playmaker Ruan Pienaar and then try-scoring machine JP Pietersen were ruled out. After a very shaky start, Frans Steyn has started to show just a touch of class in the flyhalf jersey. The real star, though, has been Riaan Swanepoel who has looked the part right from the moment he first came onto the field against the Reds. The youngster exudes calm and maturity – very much in the way that Brad Barritt used to – and has brought an aspect of tigerish defence to the Sharks midfield. Still struggling to get going on attack, he has nevertheless done incredibly well.
Vulindlu has just been pure class throughout and his man of the match exploits when thrust into the limelight against the Hurricanes last week just underline what I’ve been saying ever since I first heard about this guy two years ago. He’s a star in the making and will go on to be a legend in the black and white. Every time he’s come onto the field, he has been the epitome of what a winger should be: a combination of pace, aggression in the tackle and a super high work-rate. And have you seen that step? Simply amazing to behold.
The real key here is the “team first” ethos that the Sharks have built. It’s always about the team and never about the performance of the individual. Everyone knows what their role is and everyone supports one another. It must be so much easier for a youngster to step up and join an environment like that, knowing that the calm heads around him will be there to guide him and help him when he slips up. The contrast to the culture of blame and recrimination that seems to exist within other franchises is patently obvious.
Even the Vodacom Cup players that have been forced to make the step up – I’m thinking specifically about Chris Jordaan, Monty Dumond and Charl McLeod, have slotted in brilliantly when required. This team is a well-oiled machine, all right. What’s more, expect Pienaar, Deysel and Pietersen to be back fit and fighting for their places as the Sharks come out of the bye round. Just in time for a serious assault as the competition reached its business end.Tweet