Plumtree out to establish Sharks identity
The Cell C Sharks became the Hollywoodbets Sharks during the off-season but it is the identity the Durban franchise establishes on the field that will be the main focus for John Plumtree in his second stint as coach.
It might not be completely accurate to say that it was the day in 2013 that the then new Sharks CEO John Smit informed Plumtree, a Kiwi who had played for Natal’s epoch making first Currie Cup winning team in 1990 and twice coached them to domestic success himself, that he was surplus to requirements. The Sharks were struggling that season which was why there was a focus on the coaches.
But you still wouldn’t be far wrong. What Plumtree presided over as Sharks coach before he was gone was infinitely better and more watchable than what has followed in the last decade. Brendan Venter, as a kind of silent coach overseeing Brad McLeod-Henderson and Sean Everitt, did guide the Sharks to a Currie Cup trophy a few months after Plumtree left. And Robert du Preez did the same when his team unexpectedly won a Cape Town final against Western Province in 2017.
LONG LIST OF COACHES
Mostly though it has been a struggle for the Sharks, and the list of coaches that have come in and out of the door at Kings Park is almost as long a team list: the aforementioned three plus Jake White, Venter for a short time again, Gary Gold, Robert du Preez, Everitt as head coach and then Neil Powell, who was the newly appointed director of rugby when Everitt left. There has been even more of a revolving door when it comes to assistants, and if you tally it all up, it comes to 38 different coaches coming and going at the Sharks since Plumtree left.
Looking back, White, in guiding the Sharks to their one and only Super Rugby conference title, was the most successful of those coaches, but his brief one year reign was carried out to the background of criticism for the style of rugby employed. White wasn’t helped by the injury to Patrick Lambie that forced him to play Frans Steyn at flyhalf, and a conservative playing style didn’t go down with the Durban faithful reared on a perception of the Sharks (Natal) as the running province that was spawned by Izak van Heerden’s teams of the 1960s.
Had the Sharks won Super Rugby in that 2014 season, the end would have justified the means. But they didn’t, and with Sharks supporters still having fresh memories of the attacking brand coached by Plumtree in a 2012 season where the Durbanites made the final and were known as “the offload kings of South African rugby”, change was called for.
Not that it changed for the better for the Sharks, and an unedifying 50 point defeat in Durban on Easter Saturday of 2015 to the Crusaders wasn’t the only big thrashing the Sharks suffered in the time since Plumtree departed. In the Du Preez era there were quite a few too, including a particularly humiliating home defeat to the Argentinian team, the Jaguares.
Everitt brought in a breath of fresh air when he took over as coach and his attacking orientation saw the Sharks go to the top of the log towards the end of the first half of the 2020 Super Rugby season. Alas, then came Covid, and then came changes upstairs at the Sharks that ushered in an emphasis on the recruitment of big names that didn’t necessarily suit Everitt’s preferred game plan.
Recruitment has of course been a big issue at the Sharks for a long time, and if you get into conversation with ex-Natal or Sharks players, that is something that is always pinpointed. As John Dobson has shown at the DHL Stormers, recruitment isn’t just about signing names, it is about getting players that fit what you want to do.
The Sharks haven’t done that, probably because to be frank they haven’t ever really been clear for most of the past decade what they want to do. And that is where Plumtree comes in: He appears to have already identified the creation of a Sharks identity and a culture as a priority and that may initially come before the drive for success and trophies.
PATIENCE MIGHT BE NECESSARY
So while there is an understandable feeling that the Sharks, as the most financially powerful franchise thanks to their American equity partners, must bring in trophies, perhaps a bit of a rebuild, both in terms of playing resources and playing style identity, first. ?Joey Mongalo, installed as the Sharks’ defence coach in Plumtree’s management team, got the Sharks moving in the right direction in terms of culture in the last Currie Cup season and they finished second on the final log.
However, whether you want to call it tactical naivety or not, the way they booed the Sharks when they persistently kicked the ball when they should have been chasing the game towards the end in their semifinal defeat to the Pumas pretty much summed up the attitude of Durban rugby fans. The perception of Natal as the running province probably became more myth from the 1990s on, but it is still what the people want - and Plumtree knows that.
LOST MORE THAN THEY’VE GAINED
The Sharks have lost Springbok skipper Siya Kolisi from the side that played last season plus Thomas du Toit, the pacy wing Thaakir Abrahams, former Wallaby centre Ben Tapuai, an occasional captain in Henco Venter, the behemoth tighthead Carlu Sadie and Thembelani Bholi, who was an unsung but influential leadership figure in the group over the past few years. There are a couple of other players who occupy journeyman status that have exited Kings Park, and they are the one local franchise that have more exits than arrivals.
Vincent Koch, Coenie Oosthuizen and Francois Hougaard are three arriving players who have been capped for the Springboks, but Koch is the only current international among them. He is also essentially a like-for-like replacement for front row stalwart Du Toit, who has moved to Bath.
One of Plumtree’s first selection quandaries may be around the problematic flyhalf position. While Lionel Cronje may be considered a journeyman he does play closer to the gainline and is a better allround attacking option than Curwin Bosch, who might be better off playing at fullback.
Talking of fullback, this is the year that Aphelele Fassi, who turned down an offer to move to the Stormers, needs to get serious about his rugby and make the move to becoming the star that he has the potential to become. Hopefully Plumtree will ensure that happens for it would be a boost for South African rugby if it does.
SURVIVAL NAME OF GAME BEFORE BOKS RETURN
The Sharks start off with the toughest draw of all the South African teams in the URC as they play newly crowned champions Munster in their first game before bumping into perennial log winners Leinster the following week. The initial stages of the season will be about survival, just getting enough points to still be competitive when the Springboks, and hopefully Eben Etzebeth will be in the mood to continue his current imperious form, return from France.
We will only know when we see him play whether Lukhanyo Am is going to regain his former potency, meaning mainly his stepping game, after the injury that initially kept him out of the World Cup. But if he does, the Boks will have a lot of strike power to play to at the back as they also have Aphiwe Dyanti, who has been out of rugby for four years for reasons everyone knows about, on their books. Makazole Mapimpi lost his place in the Bok starting line-up in the international season but he hasn’t lost his place.
Apart from establishing an identity and a culture to drive it, the big aim for the Sharks this year must be to ensure they qualify for the competition they really want to be in, the Heineken Champions Cup. They fell short last season, hence they are only playing in the Challenge Cup this year, and that may just make player management a bit easier for Plumtree. At the same time, it is arguably the competition they are most likely to win.
Vincent Koch (Stade Francaise)
Coenie Oosthuizen (Sale Sharks)
Francois Hougaard (Saracens)
Siya Masuku (Cheetahs)
Diego Appollis (Pumas)
George Cronje (Cheetahs)
IG Prinsloo (Pumas)
Siya Kolisi (Racing 92)
Thomas du Toit (Bath)
Thaakir Abrahams (Lyon)
Carlu Sadie (Bordeaux)
Henco Venter (Glasgow)
Kutha Mchunu (Vodacom Bulls)
Ben Tapuai (Bordeaux)
Thembelani Bholi (Valence)
Mpilo Gumede (Vodacom Bulls)
Fred Zeilinga (Bourg-en-Bresse)
Ockie Barnard (Saiama Wild Knights)