Now that the dust has settled just a little, perhaps it’s time to look back on what went wrong for the Sharks in the Super 14 and see if we can find a way forward.
I’ve heard a number of reasons, rationalisations, justifications and (inevitably) excuses about why and how we managed to blow such a promising early campaign, including a completely unprecedented 75% win rate on tour, to the extent that we finished sixth – losing four of out of our last five games. Everyone seems quite happy to gloss over the fact that we actually lost the Bulls game as well – getting worked up into a completely inappropriate froth about the fact that we actually scored a bonus point. That’s kind of an aside, though.
So injuries seem to be the main reason, followed pretty closely by the one about “10 games without a break”. The issue in both cases comes down to a lack of depth and the associated need for top players to be overplayed. Where are the quality replacements that we can call on, to send in to do the business against lesser teams, like the Reds and the Cheetahs? I tell you what, if we’d given a few fringe players a run against both of the cellar dwelling teams, there would have been no lack of motivation…
So, it’s depth then, is it? Sure, we have no shortage of props, but outside of the front row, the cupboard is quite alarmingly bare in virtually every position. How can this be? Surely we have one of the top academy systems in South African rugby, as well as the most successful brand? Why are we not able to find players to step into the breach? Has Rudi Straueli been asleep on the job? What exactly is going on here?
Now, I like to think that I’m pretty up-to-date with what (and who) we have available in the second tier and I must say, I’m a little flummoxed as to why none of these guys have been given a chance to push for higher honours. It’s a bit like the old joke about the Pope’s surname – he has one, but he doesn’t use it. Although maybe it might have been referring to something else… I can never quite remember! That said, we have a number of young guns champing at the bit to get their chance and in many cases, getting quite frustrated that they aren’t getting that opportunity. Sure, some of them will turn out to be average Vodacom Cup or Currie Cup grade players at best, but if we never have serious intentions of testing these guys out at a higher level, why bother having them in the system in the first place? Wouldn’t it make more sense to rather get rid of them and contract in some guys who do have what it takes?
Don’t fool yourself, fans – the Sharks do not currently have a squad capable of winning the Super 14. This much is abundantly clear. Our first XV is an awesome unit, but looking deeper into even the match 22, there’s a worrying lack of experience. The wider training group, from which the coaches will need to select in the case of injury is bristling with promising, yet wholly untested players in every position. I, for one, am not seeing evidence of a clear plan to actually move on from that situation and get us to the point where we can seriously challenge for the Super 14 again next year.
Let’s look at specifics. In particular, it was the injuries to Jean Deysel and Ruan Pienaar and (to a lesser extent) JP Pietersen that really hurt. In the case of Deysel, we’ve known for years that we have a depth problem at blindside flank. We saw in the Currie Cup that we just plain did not have a solution to this problem without Deysel, as first Steven Sykes was played out of position, followed by the increasingly hopeless options of Nikolai Blignaut and Nick Strauss. This season’s approach was to play Keegan Daniel out of position as a blindside flank and although he personally did quite well, the negative impact on the games of both Jacques Botes and Ryan Kankowski was clear. Hell, this one stood out like the proverbial dog’s balls to all the fans, yet somehow the management couldn’t see it? The addition of the equally light Skollie Ndlovu on the bench was just plain ludicrous as well. It’s surprising that Kankowski managed to hold up as well as he did – he must have been completely finished after just 6 weeks of the competition!
Now the crazy thing here is that we have any number of potentially good youngsters who could step up. Justin Downey, Mike Rhodes, Thabo Mamojele, Jacques Potgeiter and even young Adriaan Theissinger are all in the system and could have been called up – hell, Downey even joined the tour when Deysel was injured, yet couldn’t seem to get onto the park. Why not? Is he not deemed good enough? The point here is we need to be honest with ourselves in terms of what we have. Either play them or let them go and find someone else.
Flyhalf, of course, is our Achilles heel. We all thought it was hugely risky going into the season without a recognised pivot and although Ruan Pienaar did well, his injury exposed exactly how woeful our depth is. I mean, come on – anyone who’s actually bothered to watch Frans Steyn play flyhalf in the last 18 months should know that he’s just not up to it. How can that seriously have been the only backup plan for a team that assured its fans it was going to win this year’s competition? It’s bloody laughable. If you then look a level lower and see that the only other options were Monty Dumond and Len Olivier, the reason for being forced to play Steyn seems clearer. There just aren’t any flyhalves in the system. Question is, what is being done about it?
Centre, wing, fullback – it’s the same in all of these positions. We’ve gone from the situation where we were unsure about who to leave out, to not having anyone to pick. So tell me, guys – what are we going to do about it?Tweet