Noises coming out of the Sharks camp seem to indicate that an almost seismic shift in selection policy will be on the cards for the 2010 Super 14. John Plumtree, with his back to the wall after his “chosen ones” failed to deliver any silverware in 2009 looks set to make “competition for places” his new mantra, in a move sure to ruffle more than a few feathers.
The Sharks coach is understood to be playing for his life in the upcoming Super 14; the Sharks’ tame capitulation when the crunch came in both the Super 14 and Currie Cup have really hit the bottom line, with the early Currie Cup exit in particular estimated to have cost the Union somewhere in the region of R10 million. A home Super 14 final, which at one stage looked very much on the cards, would have brought in at least 50% more than that, I’m sure. Fans are not loving the Sharks’ brand of rugby at the moment, as the low attendance in the recent Currie cup semi-final will attest.
Now, the latest theory doing the rounds is that far too many of the Sharks’ established players have slipped into a comfort zone – the term “prima donnas” has been used and the thinking seems to be that a lack of real competition within the squad has led to certain players feeling that they cannot be dropped. Further to this, there are some who seem to think that they have a God-given right to the jersey and will threaten to leave should they ever be dropped. The malaise seems pretty widespread, especially amongst the “Springbok core” of the team, players including Beast Mtawarira, Bismarck and Jannie du Plessis, Johann Muller, Ryan Kankowski, Ruan Pienaar, Adrian Jacobs and Odwa Ndungane. Very few of the aforementioned should really be satisfied with the contributions they have made to the Sharks cause in 2009, yet without suitable backups in place, there has seemingly been very little option but to persevere with them. These players are, of course, eating up a sizable chunk of the Sharks player budget and one cannot really blame the Union for wanting to get heir money’s worth.
That said, the frustration amongst the “next tier” is palpable and having spoken to a number of these players, I can understand their position. These are the guys that bust a gut at training and would literally die for just one opportunity to pull the jersey over their heads. We all saw how marked the improvement was in Monty Dumond’s play once afforded the benefit of a few consecutive starts at flyhalf. He’s pragmatic, though and knows that his best chance of regular Super 14 exposure is to move to the Cheetahs. Lwazi Mvovo, Charl McLeod and Mike Rhodes are further examples of fringe players showing their worth when given the opportunity, only to be later discarded for out-of-form regulars. Others, like Justin Downey, Nqubeko Zulu and Warren Whiteley have never even been afforded an opportunity, despite the established loose forward mix being palpably not up to the job.
So, Plumtree has now apparently thrown the gauntlet down to his favourites and there will no doubt be wailing and gnashing of teeth aplenty as established applecarts are upset. What, exactly, has changed, though, in terms of the squad makeup in order to make this now possible? If anything, it would appear far weaker this year, as a number of promising youngsters (as well as Frans Steyn) have left. There have been three acquisitions to date, although two of them could still be scuppered by the legal process. In addition to that, a fair few of 2009’s impressive crop of Under 21s have been elevated to the senior ranks.
In the forwards, we’ve always had good depth in the front row and the John Smit saga notwithstanding, that should still be the case in 2009, with plenty good loosehead options and a fair few on the other side as well. Craig Burden has emerged as a real contender at hooker, whilst we’ll be hoping that tighthead Wiehahn Herbst can get back onto the field quickly. The Sharks picked up a lot of front-row niggles last year and a fair few will persist into 2010, but by the time the Super 14 gets going in earnest, the cupboard should be pretty well stocked. Managing the du Plessis egos will be the biggest challenge, as always. In the second row, we’ve lost Albert van den Berg, but gained the injury-prone Gerhard Mostert. Al Hargreaves and Mike Rhodes will add options too, along with my pick of the youngsters, Jandre Marais. In the loose trio, the acquisition of Willem Alberts will keep both Ryan Kankowski and Jean Deysel on their toes, while Justin Downey, Rhodes and Luvo Lusaseni will all push hard too. Openside remains a challenge, with both Jacques Botes and Keegan Daniel needing a real challenger to force them to consistently raise their respective games. Perhaps a fit-again Skollie Ndlovu might be the man to do this, or keep an eye out for an ambitious youngster in Renaldo Bothma.
It’s at halfback that we’re going to be caught out again, I fear, with neither of the two leading scrumhalves having a good 2009 and Ross Cronje also not doing very much to advance his own claims. Charl Mcleod is the man who could leapfrog all the others if his 2009 form is anything to go on, but at flyhalf the options are again woefully thin. Juan Hernandez is yet to justify his massive salary, while Ruan Pienaar clearly doesn’t want to be a ten. Guy Cronje doesn’t look ready for the Super 14 either, so perhaps we might end up having to force Dumond to stay – always a recipe for disaster.
Centre is again a concern, with a number of youngsters expected to step up. Maties try machine Jean Stemmet and 2009 young player of the year Pat Lambie will both be centre options in the Super 14 squad, along with the established crew of Riaan Swanepoel, Waylon Murray, Adi Jacobs and Andries Strauss. Of those four, Swannie was the only one to enhance is reputation at all in 2009 and this is certainly one area where places are wide open. The back three has been strengthened by the acquisition of Louis Ludik – provided he manages to recover from his horrific knee injury – and here we can only hope that the likes of Mvovo and Luzuko Vulindlu continue to ask questions of the incumbents.
So what do you think, fans? Will Plumtree manage to successfully balance the demands of his established core, while still creating an atmosphere of competition in the squad and pride in the jersey? Or will this be another season fraught with unfulfilled ambitions – one which sees a large number of household names decide to consider other options in 2011?Tweet