Sharks were good but Loftus will be litmus test
John Plumtree is no stranger to Loftus, which is where his team goes next for their first Vodacom United Rugby Championship derby of the season against the Vodacom Bulls. He knows the venue as both a player and a coach. He’s lost there and won there in both roles.
And he was also part of a ruse around the historic and much remembered 1990 Currie Cup final, when he was a player, that gave an indication of just how far ahead of his time the Natal coach, the legendary late Ian McIntosh, really was. Plumtree was named in the team to play that final, where Natal were going in quest of their first domestic title in the same year the union was celebrating its centenary.
The catch though was that McIntosh had no intention of starting with Plumtree, who had been a fixture on the flank all season. The experienced lock Andre Botha had sat out the season at provincial level because of work commitments and only played club rugby for Durban Collegians. But unbeknown to everyone aside from the player himself and McIntosh, Botha was available for the final.
So when Natal ran out of the tunnel on that October afternoon, Botha was in the starting team, with regular lock Steve Atherton shifted to the flank. Plumtree, at a time when the term “playing off the bench” was not in vogue, did exactly that as he played his part in the epoch-making moment for the team that preceded the franchise he now coaches.
BULLS HAVE THEIR BIG ALLY - ALTITUDE
Plumtree may need to make extensive use of his bench players against the Bulls on Saturday, as Jake White’s team now have the strength in depth they maybe lacked last season. And of course there is the thing that no coastal coach ever likes to talk about, but which they all acknowledge in their minds - the altitude.
With Willie le Roux adding his wide passing game to the mix at the back, and Wilco Louw and the rest of the front-row continuing the momentum that has erased the scrum issues of the Bulls’ recent past, the Bulls were highly impressive in dispatching dangerous Connacht this past Saturday afternoon.
Speaking just after his own team had put the Dragons to the sword in notching their first win, and first full house of five log points, of the URC season, Plumtree readily acknowledged that the next game is going to be a much tougher test of the progress his charges have made under his coaching.
“When it comes to next weekend, this win was good for our confidence, it was what we needed before heading to Pretoria,” said Plumtree.
“It was far from perfect and we do have stuff to work on. We know how tough it is going to be next week at Loftus. They put away Connacht, who beat us the previous week, quite easily this afternoon and that shows how good they are. We have a lot of respect for the Bulls and we know it is going to be a tough challenge.”
DURBANITES HAVE POOR RECORD AT LOFTUS
It’s not quite as bad as it was when the Natal team that Plumtree was a part of went to Pretoria for the 1990 final, when there had been a gap of 10 years from the famous win scored by Wynand Claassen’s class of 1980, but the Sharks don’t boast a good recent record at Loftus. In the time since White took over at the Bulls, the Sharks have won just once there in the URC or Super Rugby Unlocked, and that was when the Bulls were reduced to 14 men with the early sending off of Morne Steyn the season before last.
They did win a Currie Cup game there last year, and that will give confidence to those players who played that day under the URC team’s defence coach, Joey Mongalo, but otherwise it has been a lean period dating back to 2011, when Plumtree was still solidly ensconced as Sharks coach in his first stint as mentor of the Durbanites.
However, Plumtree will remember some good times in Pretoria as a coach, most notably a Currie Cup game where his team won against the odds after having lock Johan Ackermann sent off in the fourth minute.
AGAINST THE ODDS
‘Against the odds’ has been an operative term when it comes to Sharks wins away against the Bulls, and it will be again as although the Sharks were good with their Boks back in thrashing the Dragons 69-14, Plumtree will be the first to agree his star players haven’t really had enough bedding in time yet to be completely confident.
Yet he is certainly in a much better position than he was this time last week and the further step up shown by Lukhanyo Am, a Bok who did play against Connacht, was an indicator of how much improvement there could be in the second game the full strength Sharks team would have played together.
“We were a bit more clinical in parts of our game and we finished off our opportunities that we created this time and that in turn created a flow of confidence through the team,” said Plumtree.
“It was good to see the boys enjoying their rugby out there. We scored points that built pressure on the scoreboard, and I thought our try just before halftime was crucial. Dragons are a tough team and we knew we had to wear them down. That try put the buffer on the scoreboard at halftime that we needed and in the second half we went out to apply pressure.
“The Boks were great. It is not easy when you come back from a high like that. Some haven’t played in quite a while and were a bit rusty, but their return was great timing for next week’s game as they will be better. The Boks were coming back into a new coaching setup so it would have been a big week for them and I hope they enjoyed it.”