The anger and frustration being vented by Cell C Sharks fans on social media following their team’s exit from the Carling Currie Cup at the semifinal phase may be a tad over the top.
The Currie Cup is no longer the competition it was, meaning the vehicle used to decide which is the best South African team. That happens in the Shield component of the Vodacom United Rugby Championship. Instead, it is a development competition, or at least it is for the URC franchises, who use it as a tool to grow their depth for the twin challenges posed by competing in both that competition and the Heineken Champions Cup.
In that sense, what the URC franchises get out of the Currie Cup is not decided by whether they win silverware or not. Maybe the Vodacom Bulls are an exception to that, because they played their top team, but both the Sharks and the DHL Stormers, who will feel happy with Western Province’s Currie Cup campaign even though they did not make the semifinals, got a lot of positie out of the Currie Cup. What was important was the platform for growth provided to young players who came through.
DUMB RUGBY RIGHTLY DREW CENSURE
The Sharks certainly grew in this last Currie Cup season, and for the players and their coach Joey Mongalo it was a successful season regardless of the result of the semifinal, which the Sharks lost 26-20 to the Airlink Pumas. The platform provided for the advance of someone like their young lock Corne Rahl was what their campaign was all about.
But where the gnashing of teeth of the HollywoodBets Kings Park faithful was justified was when it was specific to the tactics on show from their team, particularly in the dying stages of their game against the Pumas. In some ways, considering what has gone before, and considering the perennial lament of fans who consider the KZN rugby DNA to be the running game inspired by Izak van Heerden in the 1960s, it was apt that the season should end like it did.?The Sharks were chasing the game and had to score a try to win. It was a situation that cried out for them to hold onto the ball, but instead each time it came to them, they hoofed it back at the Pumas. Who in turn hoofed it back, because that ping pong game suited them. Defending opposition attacks is tiring at that late stage of the game, as was shown when the Pumas found themselves almost out on their feet when the Sharks went all out from good field position that was presented them by a Pumas mistake with three minutes to go.
Every time the Sharks put boot to ball in the last 15 minutes of the game a cry went up from the stands. The kicks were jeered. The Kings Park faithful were letting their feelings be known, they didn’t need to wait for the bile of the keyboard warriors afterwards to make waves for them. The paying patrons, those most precious key stakeholders, were making their displeasure known.
NOT THE FIRST TIME
It wasn’t the first time the Sharks played dumb rugby and leaned on the boot when the situation cried out for different tactics at a crucial late stage of a game. Perhaps the most obvious example of the Sharks producing brainless rugby was the last few minutes of their URC game against the Stormers in Cape Town in March: The hosts were down to 13 men playing against 15, the Sharks had a chance to win, but they kicked everything.
What is probably concerning the Sharks rugby public is that what we saw at the weekend wasn’t necessarily just tactical ineptitude but perhaps rather a demonstration of a kicking as first resort philosophy that has taken hold at the Sharks. The disquiet rolling around Kings Park on Saturday evening was just a continuation and outward expression of a frustration that started with the outpouring of dissatisfaction after the box kicking extravaganza that was the 2020 Currie Cup final.
When John Plumtree arrives next month to take over the coaching of the Sharks, bringing through his own playing philosophy is going to have to be as important a labour for him as the creation of team culture, something that now virtually everyone either involved with the Sharks or on the periphery of the team now seems to agree on.
DURBAN’S CLIMATE MAKES APING THE STORMERS STYLE HARD
In some ways, those Durbanites who pine for the days when Natal were the running province (and never won anything by the way) are living in a pie in the sky reality. I say that in reference to the weather conditions the Sharks play in for much of their season now that summer time rugby has become a reality in South Africa.
Summer is the rainy season in the sub-tropics, it is also when it is most oppressively humid. The sweat that rubs from the modern jerseys makes the ball slippery, and a tactical kicking game is sometimes unavoidable as a consequence.
It is probably the Stormers’ attacking playing style that many Sharks fans would like to see their team adopt, but here’s an interesting one - the Stormers’ game is tailored for the dry Cape summer, but was shown up on the wet, slippery bog that masqueraded as their home surface in the URC final. Meaning that the other coastal franchise is also perhaps going to have to adapt its game to suit the different conditions evidenced in their home region at the start and end of the season.
The conditions that would best suit a running approach from the Sharks are the ones KZN is experiencing now: It’s dry, theirs no humidity, the fields are firm. The opposite of what would be presented were they to go to the Cape right now.
PLUMTREE WAS IN CHARGE OF THE OFFLOAD KINGS
But while pragmatism will have to be the Sharks way at the height of summer, there is a need to get some of the old running rugby vibe back, and that should come under Plumtree, who in 2012 was in charge of a Sharks team that became known as the offload kings of South African rugby.
With Plumtree charged with the task of bringing in something new, perhaps it works for him that the biggest failing of the Sharks as a franchise this past season, meaning the failure to retain Champions Cup qualification, has delivered a scenario that could take some of the pressure off and give him space for a proper rebuild.
It is a long time ago, but the WP team that broke a long trophy drought in the Cape by winning the Currie Cup in 1997 had profited from being excluded from Super Rugby that year. Instead at the start of Harry Viljoen’s short stint as Province coach, they played in a Night Series that featured smaller teams. WP won that and built confidence.
The Challenge Cup will be more competitive than the Night Series of 1997 was, but it is a significant step down from the Champions Cup. There’s a definite opportunity for the Sharks to build some winning momentum in their initial growth spurts under Plumtree and if all works to plan, we won’t see the gnashing of teeth this time next year that we are seeing now. And we won’t be seeing the Sharks conspire against themselves with the kind of brainless rugby that frustrated their fans in the dying stages of the Currie Cup semifinal.