Hi folks, this is not a postmortem report filled with dread and doom. In fact, I have to say I was encouraged by the way the Sharks played their last game. But also a little honesty and acknowledgment is needed by both fans and the players alike. So where do we begin?
After having stumbled against the two weakest teams in the Super 14 earlier this season, and having played average rugby for most part, the Sharks saved their finest performance for the game with the most impossible odds, raising questions about their professional attitude to rugby as a whole.
Against the Bulls on Saturday night, and needing a non-negotiable four tries, the Sharks dared to soar and were a sight to behold. The backs ran with purpose, Ruan Pienaar looked like the dangerous player he’s threatened to be. JP Pietersen reveled in the intensity and pace. Stefan Terblanche was in sublime form after arguably costing his team the game the week before. Which leaves fans scratching their heads in bemusement about their team’s mediocre performances up until this point.
Thing is, having a professional attitude means always playing like it could be your last game. It means being merciless. Against the supposedly minnow teams like the Reds and Cheetahs, the Sharks did not give enough credit to their opposition, bringing their B games to the field and got drilled. Perhaps the players have an overinflated sense of their worth, perhaps they’ve have fallen into bit of a rut, looking forward to the paycheck instead of the performance. What is certain, however, is that the hunger, pride and desperation to win has been noticeably absent of late.
Although the losses to the Reds and Cheetahs were unfortunate, it’s the Crusaders game that probably best defined the Sharks campaign of 2009, and it’s the one they should rue the most. Playing at home, the humidity was fine, the weather good and the Crusaders were far from their top form. This was the Sharks’ game, yet they made 23 handling errors, more than the average school team, and lost the ball within metres of the tryline on several occasions.
This almost astonishing inability to finish over the tryline became a scourge of the team all season. Time and again, the TMO was called into play and time and again the result went against the Sharks, either because of a knock-on or double movement. Now this is lack of patience, pure and simple. Sure it’s nice to dive for the line, but if it’s out of reach then getting the ball back in the ruck is the next most important thing. A few of the players (read: Bismark Du Plessis), need to be schooled in the basics of tryline play. Particularly the part about teamwork making the dream work.
The next question that needs to be raised is this: if the all-out attacking game plan of the Sharks delivered four tries as successfully as it did on Saturday, then why-oh-why have the Sharks been sticking to their conservative, ugly, hoof-it-at-all-costs approach. Having only scored bonus points on two occasions up until Saturday’s game (rather pathetic compared to the other teams), it doesn’t take a genius to work out that perhaps the Sharks are better suited to the expansive game. I mean, after all, they do have some of the best runners in the game (Kockett, Kankowski, Pienaar, Jacobs and Pietersen spring to mind). Dare I say John Plumtree’s forward-based kicking game is actually wrong? What I do know is that the back three looked infinitely more dangerous running it from the deep than simply hoofing up-and-unders all day long.
Although a lot of fans are probably hurting right now, I prefer to see the silver lining. By missing the semi-finals and going from first place on the log to finishing mid-table, the Sharks will be forced to do some introspection. Unlike the Stormers who never seem to learn from their bad seasons, the Sharks will have to address their tactics and their professional approach to the game.
Ironic isn’t it that Plumtree is famous for stressing pride in the jersey and Grant Bashford is known for his attention to the basics, because those were probably the qualities most lacking this year.
Rudolph Straueli will have to pull out all the stops to try and find an answer to the perennial crisis of depth at Number 10. And let’s hope for the sake of Natal rugby that Francois Steyn never plays flyhalf in the province again. Please can all we lay this bogey to rest.
Fans, let’s be honest here. The Sharks didn’t really deserve to be in the semi-finals anyway. Apart from the Blues and Bulls game, they never looked like championship material. Yet they had the best draw in years, an incredible overseas tour and were sitting pretty at the top after seven rounds. If our players are going to drop a gold nugget like that, then they deserve to watch the semi-finals from the couch. History never remembers the team that ‘almost made it’. So hard luck Sharks, and good luck to the Bulls next week. They showed the most hunger and resolve out of all the South African teams, and at the end of the season, the log never lies.Tweet