The big coastal unions are licking their wounds after finding that their “one, two” status from the Absa Currie Cup round-robin phase counted for horribly little on semi-finals day.
Rob Houwing writes for Sport24.
Instead “three and four” had the last laugh as the Blue Bulls and Cheetahs booked their tables for an October 31 banquet, as it were, at Loftus.
Except that I am not so sure Western Province, pipped at the death by the Super 14 champion Bulls at Newlands, have too many wounds to treat.
Their notably young side came desperately close, after all, to downing possibly the strongest provincial unit on the planet, at full strength, and certainly confirmed that they are the real deal in resurgence terms.
From no semi-final at all in three years to a home one in 2009: that is a pretty comforting thought for a Province team who seem set fair now to challenge forcefully for next year’s domestic honours and, indeed, improve substantially on their innocuous Stormers effort of 10th in the Super 14 this year.
Of course it is still premature to talk of a guaranteed return to glory days at Newlands, because they haven’t broken their eight-year major trophy drought yet, although it would be a surprise if their curve doesn’t continue to climb healthily out of “recession”.
But if there is cause for real soul-searching in defeat, that fate is very much the preserve of the Sharks, who have basically imploded in both major competitions this year after setting supposedly solid platforms for assault on the respective silverware.
They had a near-brilliant start to the Super 14 – they were seemingly a fait accompli for the semis at one stage — only to recede rather spectacularly into sixth, and topped the league stage of the Currie Cup only to let it all go to ruin in shock home semi-final defeat to the Cheetahs before a weirdly flat, disappointing crowd of just over 30 000.
From Currie Cup winners and third-placers in the Super 14 in 2008, the Sharks can thus be said to have slipped a notch or two in a broad sense this year, and a pertinent question to ask is: can they arrest the mini-rot?
By extension, has the nucleus of their squad – the one which came so agonisingly close to grabbing maiden Super 14 honours in 2007 — possibly peaked?
I’m beginning to suspect it has, and that the franchise needs to embark with fair haste on a meaningful freshening initiative, perhaps aimed at challenging realistically again for the elusive Super 14, in particular, a year or two up the road.
There appears to be a strange, split personality to the team: where one week they are dashing and exciting, attacking from deep off turnover ball with unrivalled aplomb, the next they can be plodding and seemingly bereft of ideas, their once highly-touted pack sometimes battling to build a bridgehead in terms of primary possession.
They remain a big outfit with some big players, don’t get me wrong, but I also have a sneaky feeling that 2010 will be a year of necessary “consolidation” rather than notable success for them, especially in terms of the three-country competition.
Looming for them is a Super 14 campaign featuring one home game fewer than last, and a tougher, longer overseas leg into the bargain.
On Saturday the Sharks were glaringly shy of zest when their Currie Cup semi suddenly went into the balance — their staunchest supporters are entitled to wonder why this was so – and it cost them dearly.
Is there meat to a rumour-mill bone that says the Sharks administration and certain leading players are not exactly dancing to a harmonious beat?
Has Springbok selection policy, where positional or game-time usage of certain players has not always corresponded with the Sharks’ desires and vice-versa – think Ruan Pienaar and John Smit, for instance – put something of a spanner in the Durban works?
Why did multi-talented Frans Steyn flee the coop for France at the tender age of 22?
The Sharks, I think, have also reached that stage where a swelling group of their players either fall into the 30-plus category already or will do so during next year.
Included here are the likes of Albert van den Berg and Stefan Terblanche (these two well beyond the landmark), Smit, Skipper Badenhorst, Jacques Botes, Deon Carstens, Adrian Jacobs and Johann Muller.
Considering the volume of rugby played these days and the raised physical toll, it is sometimes tempting to consider “30 the new 33”, after all.
To the credit of the Sharks honchos, a squad infusion quest is already underway: getting the no-frills, 120kg Lions lock Gerhard Mostert (only recently 25) on board was a sound move, and other signings from the Big Smoke are tipped to follow in the form of Louis Ludik and that wrecking-ball No 8 Willem Alberts.
Put the last-named player into a loose trio also featuring a fully fit Jean Deysel and maybe the Sharks will once again get the sort of tight-loose “go-forward” they used to so greedily relish.
But of course the integration of new faces can take a bit of time.
The Sharks are too strong to simply disappear off the map, and maybe I will even be accused of implying “crisis” (I’m not) where none really exists.
It may just be that certain players – their near-cynically over-played Bok front-row comes rapidly to mind – were on very last legs after a uniquely challenging year and in desperate need of a break.
But I retain a nagging belief that sideways is perhaps the best direction the Sharks can hope for in the short-term future.
“Something” just seems to have gone from their midst for the moment, and I can’t quite pinpoint what it is.
I fancy I am not alone.Tweet