Looking at the situation that the Sharks are in at the moment, with a dearth of quality depth amongst the backline, a lot of fingers are being pointed at the Academy structure, asking why we’re not seeing swathes of talented young players coming in to fill the gaps.
The more excitable amongst us are then tempted to go a step further, labelling the Academy a complete waste of time and money, claiming that it “never produces anything” and that the Sharks “just buy all the time”. Funny thing is, I reckon we can trace the current situation back to Dick Muir’s first season in charge, when he virtually chucked out all the mediocre rubbish that was clogging the system and brought in a clutch of youngsters fresh from the Academy. If anything, the problem that ensued was a result of too much talent coming through all at once, rather than too little.
Managing the playing resources in a professional sporting team is always going to be a delicate balancing act, as you attempt to maintain the right mix of experienced older campaigners and young up-and-comers. You can’t afford to mistreat your stalwarts, or they’ll leave en masse, leaving you without an established core of leaders. By the same token, if you don’t provide enough opportunities for the youngsters to establish themselves and progress, they too will seek greener pastures elsewhere. It’s a thing that some unions manage to get right, but it would be somewhat inaccurate to say that the Sharks have made a good fist of the hand they were dealt, particularly once Muir left in 2008.
To consider the scope of the problem, though, I urge you to try and put together a backline that contains Ruan Pienaar, Rory Kockott, Butch James, Brad Barritt, Frans Steyn, Brent Russell, JP Pietersen, Waylon Murray, Adi Jacobs, Odwa Ndungane and Percy Montgomery that is going to allow each to settle in his favoured position and play there consistently? That, more-or-less, was the problem that the Sharks coaches sat with a few years ago and while the response to the situation undoubtedly left much to be desired, the reality is that they were never going to keep everyone happy. Something had to give and once the departures started, they just seemed to keep coming with no let-up in sight.
When Russell left and Montgomery followed, we thought little of it. James’s time had come and gone as well and we had ample backup with Fred Michalak on his way in. Things settled down a little, with Frans Steyn’s inability to find a regular starting spot in a position he fancied the only major headache. Then Adi Jacobs ended up back in the Bok starting lineup and threw the cat amongst the pigeons once again. Brad Barritt was the first of the talented young crop to see what was coming and decide to follow the England dream instead. Things would have been fine had Steyn himself not followed soon afterwards, coupled with Murray entering a dramatic form slump from which he has still not emerged. Pienaar’s on-again, off-again flirtation with the flyhalf jersey had a negative impact not only on his game, but that of Kockott as well, while a procession of foreign flyhalves did little to benefit anyone other than themselves.
In short, the lack of a clear plan, with clearly-defined roles and career paths for all concerned resulted in a shambles, where half of the young talent buggered off, with the other half ending up confused and low on form, not to mention confidence. Expectations were poorly managed and far too often one got the feeling that neither the players, not the administration had the faintest clue about who was meant to be playing where, or who the first, second and third choice players were in each position. In many cases, those in the next tier simply got fed up and left as they saw journeymen in the system regularly preferred to them, leading to the situation we have now, where there is precious little depth apparent anywhere.
I’m afraid that the Sharks once again have little option but to buy in a few marquee players of established pedigree to rebuild the team and the brand, but it is vital that whoever comes in now is charged not only with delivering a high standard of play themselves, but also mentoring the younger generation currently in the system, but currently a year or two away from being ready to take the next step up. The natural progression in Sharks rugby has been completely disrupted and it’s vital that steps be taken to restore this balance, lest the team never achieve any form of sustainable success.Tweet