Something not right with the Sharks
February 16, 2010
Is John Smit presiding over a sinking ship? © Getty Images
Are the Sharks a team in crisis? It is a question being increasingly asked by South African rugby followers after some strange goings-on at the franchise over the last year or so.
Last year they were leading the charge in the Super14 but a spectacular implosion -losing four of their last five league games - saw them miss out of the semi-final spots and finish in sixth place. It was still a respectable enough finish by most teams' standards and none of us expected anything untoward beyond a choke as the finish line neared.
Then the Currie Cup came. Once again they were in pole position, but a side bolstered by a number of senior Springboks fluffed its lines at home in the semi-final against the Free State Cheetahs. But if that suggested all was not well, the signs have been a good deal more obvious this year.
There were the pre-season performances against the Western Force (a 26-0 defeat) and the Stormers (a 29-14 defeat) that inspired dread before the season started. Coach John Plumtree was encouraged after the Stormers game, though, as the team appeared to be pitching up for a rugby match and not "netball" (his words, not mine). Plumtree himself was linked with a future coaching position at the Hurricanes, a claim which elicited swift denials from Kings Park.
Then followed the strangest episode for quite some time in the soap opera that is South African rugby - the saga of a fly-half called Steve Meyer. He had been playing his rugby at Perpignan in France, but the Sharks needed to bolster their depth at No.10 following a long-term injury to Argentine star Juan Martin Hernandez.
And so Meyer signed a two-year contract to fulfil his "life's dream" of becoming a Shark. But it was not to be. Two days before the campaign started, the Sharks issued a terse statement saying that Meyer had decided to retire due to "personal reasons", rumoured to be stress.
There have also been rumours circulating for some time about trouble in the Sharks' ranks, but these have mostly involved the Du Plessis brothers - Jannie and Bismarck - supposedly having issues with Springbok captain John Smit. Bismarck du Plessis has even gone on record this year flatly denying that there are issues with Smit and praised him as one of the people he respects most in rugby.
And even if there were a personality clash between players, one has to ask whether it would really result in a fall-out that will have grave consequences for an entire team. What cannot be denied, though, is that they are a franchise that appears to be on the slide rather than on the up.
For this there is no apparent logical reason. Smit, the Du Plessis brothers, Beast Mtawarira, Ryan Kankowski, Jean Deysel, Ruan Pienaar and JP Pietersen are a list of names that most franchises would be delighted to have in their ranks. The Sharks have also snapped up the services of two talented players in powerful loose forward Willem Alberts and fullback/wing Louis Ludik following wrangling with the Lions.
But their first game of the new season ended in a narrow 18-19 home defeat to the Chiefs, with a tough five-week tour to follow this coming weekend's fixture against the Cheetahs. It may well be a revealing period for a franchise that should have top four aspirations, but are suspected of having lost their mojo. Is something rotten in the state of Denmark? That may too big an assumption to make just yet. But time will tell.
Stephen Nell is a rugby correspondent for the Die Burger newspaper