I would like to hand out a big post-Currie Cup Final thank you to one Mark Keohane, who I feel may have almost single-handedly ensured that the Sharks lifted the cup this year. Well, not quite single-handedly, because that’s taking credit away from the real heroes of the piece here, but an honourable mention is deserved, at the very least.
In the run-up to the the semi-final against the Blue Bulls, Keohane launched yet another of his predictable tirades against the Sharks union and our team. The same old tired clichés about “mercenaries”, “jokers”, “chokers” and so on were hauled out. In short, the Sharks – at one stage the darlings of the South African domestic scene due to their new approach and embracing of professionalism – had turned into nothing but a sideshow, a poor imitation of the “real” rugby powerhouses in South Africa, Western Province and the Blue Bulls. Nobody wanted to play for the Sharks – there could never be any real justification for playing your rugby out of Durban other than taking a huge pay cheque and enjoying a soft lifestyle. Keohane sums up his views on the Sharks as follows… “They are invariably a squad made up of outsiders who then try and talk about the pride of the jersey and the lifelong dream to play at the Absa Stadium in the Mr Price Sharks jersey.”
Keohane, a dyed-in-the-wool Province man at heart, has an annoying penchant for flirting with the Blue Bulls every time his own, woefully unsuccessful team endures a dismal season. He claims to “admire the way the Blue Bulls do things”, or something like that, yet his disdain for anything that isn’t wearing blue and white hoops is never far below the surface. As much as I find his personal views about the Sharks odious, this is not really about him, though – or rather, not only him. The perception that the Sharks are a team of highly-paid “guns for hire” with no pride in the team or the jersey is, unfortunately, a widespread one.
Now I’ve seen something interesting happen to the Sharks this season. One by one, the prima donnas – the pampered “stars”, seem to have wondered off to chase the big European pay cheque. Once the ideal destination for aspiring players, the Sharks have seen their stocks dwindle somewhat as, ironically, Western Province (with their shady billionaire backer) has emerged as the team of choice for a whole raft of South African superstars. Talk about buying a team, hell – who was the last capped Springbok who actually moved to Natal, rather than going to either the Bulls or Province? Assuming we don’t count Andre Pretorius, the answer is surprising. It was Jannie du Plessis.
What has remained as the “fashionable veneer” has been whittled away is a hardcore team of Sharks faithful – the core of the squad on which John Plumtree has built his two Currie Cup winning teams. Some were players ignored or thrown away by other unions, such as Jean Deysel, Jacques Botes, Odwa Ndungane or Charl McLeod. Others, like Pretorius and Stefan Terblanche were considered past their prime. A far bigger group, though, despite what everyone says, are players that have been nurtured through the Academy System and the Sharks junior ranks. Regardless of where they went to school (which is meaningless in the professional age, since schools now buy players as well) they are, in fact, home-grown. This group includes Beast Mtawarira, Bismarck du Plessis, Craig Burden, Alistair Hargreaves, Steven Sykes, Keegan Daniel, Ryan Kankowski, Riaan Swanepoel, JP Pietersen and more recently, Lwazi Mvovo and the amazing Patrick Lambie. These are the players who have made the Sharks their home – the players who have committed their future to the black and white despite, in most cases offers to play elsewhere for bigger pay cheques than the Sharks are prepared or able to match. Looks like the need to read the “Mercenary Handbook” again, because that is surely quite out of character for players who only care about money.
Putting my hand on my heart, I’ll concede that the way that Louis Ludik, Willem Alberts and especially Lionel Mapoe were contracted left a slightly sour taste in the mouth; then again, watching the performances of either of the former Lions players in the final, any suggestion that they are purely in this for the money is simply ridiculous. They saw something in the Sharks that they wanted to be a part of and I know both of them are incredibly happy that they have been accepted into the family and are contributing to its success.
So what of this hardcore team, then? War1 has already put together a wonderful account of how the adversity of the failed 2009 Currie Cup campaign, as well as the nightmare start to this season’s Super 14, seems to have moulded them into a far stronger unit – a band of brothers, if you will, who know what it means to be a team. They have learned that they can’t depend on superstars – they need to find strength from within. They pride themselves on the fact that people consider them “no hopers” and “no names” because that helps them to become closer as a team. If you don’t have a Frans Steyn or a Ruan Pienaar to pull you out of the shit, you’d better make a plan to get there through the collective efforts of all 22 guys in the squad.
Something else that has happened during the knock-out stages of this Currie Cup is quite remarkable to me – and we have Keohane and his Cape media cabal to thank for this – the Sharks absolutely THRIVE on being written off in the media. It’s the kind of thing we’ve come to expect from the Cheetahs in the past – firing themselves up into a chest-thumping frenzy every time they go into a tough game that the pundits give them no chance at all of winning. The Sharks seemed to discover that same thing in spades this season and the way in which they systematically dismantled not only the supposedly unbeatable Blue Bulls, but then did the same to the star-studded chequebook side of Western Province was reminiscent of Cheetahs-style giant killing at its best. The only problem with this approach is that you can’t stay below the radar after you’ve won the competition and for the Sharks in 2011 the challenge will be to play to their potential when wearing the favourites tag – something that has long been problematic for the side.
That’s all in the future, though. For now, the Sharks can rest (well, those of them not touring with the Boks, which is admittedly not very many) knowing full well that their heroics over the last few weeks have forced at least one knowledgeable rugby scribe to eat his words by the plateful. How does it taste, Mark? Or are you too busy sharpening your pen for the inevitable assault on the Western Province structures now? It would be interesting to compare the Province wage bill to the Sharks’ over the last three years anyway…Tweet