There will be a lot of talk in the media about the stylistic path the Cell C Sharks will embark upon under John Plumtree, but in an online conference on Thursday the newly appointed head coach correctly identified his most pressing task - getting the culture right.
“I will be aiming to tweak the culture. That is more important at this stage than what style of rugby we play, if you get the culture right the rest falls into place,” said Plumtree.
“I am more thinking about people and the environment, then rugby will take care of itself.
Back when I was coaching here last, we played good rugby to watch and with it came some success. I want them to enjoy what they are doing on the field and the results will come. I loved my time here, that will be the same. You will see a team that is proud to wear that jersey and that will result in more Ws (wins).
“I want the guys to have an environment where they enjoy coming through the gates and reporting to work,” he added.
The 57-year-old returns to Durban after 10 years away, some of that time having been spent working as Joe Schmidt’s assistant coach at Ireland and some of it as the All Blacks’ assistant coach. He and Chris Boyd guided the Hurricanes to a Super Rugby title and Plumtree also served as head coach at the Hurricanes in 2019 before taking up the All Black forwards coach job after that year’s Rugby World Cup in Japan.
HE'S A DIFFERENT COACH NOW
So it is easy to understand what he means when he says that people shouldn’t expect him to be a facsimile of the coach he was in his previous stint at the Sharks, which started with him being assistant coach to Dick Muir in the near-miss Super Rugby season of 2007, when the Durban side lost the final in the dying seconds, and ended in 2013.
“I am a far different coach now to what I was when I was here before, after a decade away I have learned a lot and now do things very differently. I have changed quite a lot. The way I coach is way different. I have learned so much over the last 10 years,” said Plumtree, who guided the Sharks to Currie Cup titles in 2008 and 2010.
“I have changed the way I coach and manage people, I have changed the detail, I have simplified a lot of what I do as well. Hopefully, you will see that change quickly. There are people here who know me well and they will see that change quite soon.”
NOT FOLLOWING ANYONE
While every time a new coach takes up the reins at the Sharks people are eager to evoke memories of two legendary Natal coaching figures of the past - Ian McIntosh who died last month and Izak van Heerden who passed on in 1973 - and the style of rugby they coached, and old timers still think of their team as representing “the running province” of the Van Heerden era, Plumtree said he wouldn’t be following anyone.
“We will play the rugby that suits us. There is a style of rugby that suits the Sharks and nobody else, we are not going to copy off the Hurricanes or the Boks or whoever, we will play what suits us and what gives us the best chance of winning trophies,” the new Sharks coach said.
“Trophies are obviously something we want to win, every team does. But there is a process to it. Tweaking the culture is going to be important. That’s the first step. The boys that come through that gate (to work) have to enjoy what they do. That is vital,” added the former Sevens Springbok and 80-cap Natal/Sharks flanker.
SHARKS HAVE THE TALENT
Plumtree will start his second stint at the Sharks on 1 July, which is when the buildup to next season will start. Although he was speaking from his home in New Zealand, Plumtree has been on a recce mission to South Africa and believes the Sharks have the talent to be successful, even though some of the star players of the recent past are leaving at the end of the season.
“I spoke to both Siya (Kolisi) and Thomas (du Toit) when I was in Durban and tried to persuade them to stay with the Sharks and they didn’t listen to me, but we do have a lot of talented players and I am happy we have the resources to challenge strongly for the silverware we will be playing for.”
Understandably Plumtree was too polite to be drawn too much on whether the Sharks have underperformed given the talent they have on their books, but he did agree that there have been some struggles and he wants to work on rectifying the causes.
“There have been some problems and we know that travel has been an issue, but hopefully we can overcome the challenges and this time next year we will be looking back at a season where we played to our potential,” he said.
REALISTIC ABOUT LEINSTER CHALLENGE
But while he is looking forward to the challenge of next year coaching the Sharks in European competitions, Plumtree doesn’t appear to have much hope of his team being part of the Heineken Champions Cup. They need to win the Vodacom United Rugby Championship in order to get into that competition, and Plumtree doesn’t appear to feel there’s much of a chance of them winning their quarterfinal against Leinster.
“It will be tough to beat Leinster in Dublin with the injuries the Sharks have. Leinster are ahead of most teams in terms of their team development. They are ahead of the Sharks. They are a settled team and it will be very tough to beat them. However it is not impossible, and I am sure the boys will be talking like that and giving their all,” he said.
He said a way of getting around the travel bogey that stymies all South African teams both in the URC and in Europe was going to be hugely challenging but he said it was a conversation that needed to be had.
“Clearly flying to Europe via Doha and with some of the big guys having to do it all at the back of the plane makes it very difficult and it does put all the South African teams at a disadvantage when they play against teams that don’t do nearly as much travelling. It’s not just the Sharks that have suffered, the other South African teams too. Finding a solution is going to be a challenge.”