Difficult three weeks ahead for The Sharks
The announcement that John Plumtree has taken leave of the Sharks with immediate effect rather than serve out the remaining weeks of his contract has introduced an even greater level of uncertainty to what was already going to be an uncomfortable final stage of the Super Rugby season for the Durban franchise.
The announcement that Plumtree’s career with the franchise was officially over was probably an indication that he got what he wanted. But while it would be understandable if Plumtree felt that his heart was no longer in it after it was announced his contract would not be renewed, what must the replacements be feeling?
It has since been announced that assistant coaches, Grant Bashford and Hugh Reece-Edwards, are taking over the reins for the remaining matches, which include a home clash with the Blues, an away game against the Bulls followed by a final fling at Kings Park against the Southern Kings. But given that they are both anticipated to be heading into their final month with the senior team, what do they gain out of this short taste of the position of head coach?
And what will the players feel playing under their new coaches who could likely only be there for a few weeks? One solution could have been to pitchfork the likely new coach, Brad McLeod-Henderson, straight into the position, but it would not have been fair on the new man to rush him into the job, particularly as Brendan Venter, the new director of rugby who will be guiding him, is not yet in his job.
It all adds up to a period of uncertainty for the Sharks, and everyone in Durban must be wishing that the Super Rugby season was over so everyone can just move on in the way that Plumtree clearly has. Were Plumtree, who has had a lot of support from the public and media in Durban since it was announced he was going to be replaced, in place for these last games, there might be an element of nostalgia and emotion to these last games. But that has now been removed from the equation. It's not as if the Sharks have anything to play for in terms of silverware as their narrow defeat to the Bulls in their last game effectively ended any slim hopes.
Plumtree takes his leave of the Sharks after a five year stint that included two Currie Cup trophies – he’s the only Sharks coach other than Ian McIntosh to win the domestic trophy – and one Super Rugby final. He was also instrumental in steering the Sharks into the 2007 final as assistant coach to Dick Muir.
That was Plumtree’s first season back in the province which he represented as a loose-forward in the first half of the 1990s, and he and Muir proved a great combination. Plumtree complemented Muir’s strengths as he brought the structure and physical edge that may have been missing before. Unfortunately for the Sharks, although they dominated that final against the Bulls for most of the way, they lost it to a dramatic last move of the game try to Bryan Habana.
Last year’s Super Rugby final was reached through a great late season rally that saw the Sharks overcome the slow start caused by early season injuries to become the form team in the competition. They played a great style of rugby, and became known as the off-load kings of South African rugby, as they smashed all-comers, including the Reds away in the quarterfinal and the Stormers at Newlands in the semi.
But their slow start left them lagging on the South African conference table, and that meant they had to play their play-off matches away. Flying to Brisbane and then back to Cape Town before going back to Australasia for the final against the Chiefs in Hamilton was always going to prove too much for them.
Their late season form was however enough to have them installed in many minds as favourites to go all the way this year, and perhaps that expectation, and the attendant disappointment when it didn’t work out for them this season, was what inspired the administrators to start thinking about change. There were plenty of mitigating circumstances though, and few teams have been decimated with injury as much as the Sharks have been this year.
Like the Stormers, they may be paying this year for their past success, in that the knock-on effect of playing in all the play-offs in both Super Rugby and Currie Cup over the past few seasons, and their contribution to the Springbok cause, may have caught up with them. Hardly a week went by this year without Plumtree having to juggle his combinations because of injuries, and that lack of continuity had to have an impact.
That Plumtree can coach, and do it well, has been amply proven by him over the past few years, particularly in the under-strength stage of the Currie Cup. Time and again the Sharks have started the domestic season with little hope due to their losing players to the Springboks, and yet time and again Plumtree brought a new team together to play successful rugby.
Last year they were particularly impressive before being shocked by Western Province in the final, with someone like scrumhalf Cobus Reinach being added to the long list of new players that the Kiwi has brought through during his time as head coach at Growthpoint Kings Park. His achievements were noticed, as he won the SA Coach of the Year award at the SARU Awards evening held in Cape Town early last November.
The man who will effectively take over the reins, Brendan Venter, is widely regarded as a rugby genius, but the Sharks fans should be hoping that the Plumtree legacy lives on for he achieved a lot that was good and may well come to be better appreciated for his achievements after he has gone.
Plumtree, who has coached at the top level in Wales, England, his native New Zealand and South Africa since taking up coaching following his retirement as a player in 1996, will probably stay in Durban until the end of the year to allow his children to complete the schooling year. But he won’t be idle for long as he is an experienced coach and it is understood there is considerable interest in his services from overseas clubs. Should he leave, it will be a loss to South African rugby.