On-field discipline and defence at the Sharks went with the departure of Jake White, writes MARK KEOHANE in Business Day.
The Sharks were quick to dismiss Springbok World Cup-winning coach White in 2014 after an eight-month stint that realised the winning of the South African conference, a first ever win against the Crusaders in Christchurch, a first ever back-to-back triumph in New Zealand and three away wins in four Australasian tour starts.
White’s Sharks won a home play-off qualifier before losing the semi-final away to the Crusaders.
The end for White was abrupt. The senior players wanted him out because they found his methods too disciplinarian, too prescriptive and too draining. They didn’t like the protocols White had instilled of demanding the players report to Kings Park at 8:30 in the morning for a working day.
It was not the way things were done in Durban. It apparently was not the Sharks way. The players were unhappy.
White was not prepared to compromise. He was also not prepared to continue to work with a coaching staff (in Brad MacLeod-Henderson and Paul Anthony) whose professional coaching experience did not extend a year.
Sharks CEO and former Springbok captain John Smit had made the appointments of the former high-school coaching duo. Smit and MacLeod-Henderson had played as teammates for the Sharks. Anthony had coached Smit at Pretoria Boys' High. Smit insisted on the duo’s potential amid criticism that it was a 'jobs for pals’ situation.
Brendan Venter was another Smit had included in the Sharks set-up, as a consultant to the inexperienced professional coaching twosome. Venter had overseen the winning of the Currie Cup, but White emphasised one was a feeder competition and Vodacom Super Rugby was the toughest provincial competition in the world.
White was non-negotiable in his thinking. The Sharks, in the history of Super Rugby, had never won the title. He felt it was unacceptable that the Sharks continued to fail with the squad quality, the budget available and the strength of the Sharks global brand. He felt only a change of culture would bring a change in results.
The players were entrenched in their ways and accustomed to a rugby lifestyle that accommodated their social lifestyle.
White, with the Midas touch wherever he has coached, was not the right fit for the Sharks. They deemed him unpopular and the players flexed their muscle to force an immediate exit.
You would have believed the Sharks were wooden spoonists in the competition; such was the send-off of the World Cup winner.
The Sharks Currie Cup team then took a 50-point beating in their semi-final of the domestic competition and settled into an off-season in which everyone expressed happiness and confidence in the likes of MacLeod-Henderson and Anthony.
They are considered good guys in Durban and the players like them. But their happy team took 50 points in a semi-final.
And this happy team was made even happier with the appointment of former Springbok assistant coach Gary Gold as the director of rugby and effectively the head coach.
The pre-season was hyped because the players were content and had the right fit in a coaching staff, who would allow the players to express their natural talent.
Anthony was a media regular in talking up the attack of the Sharks. MacLeod-Henderson spoke of the culture, new defence coach Michael Horak spoke of the balance required on defence and attack. Gold, who only arrived a week before the season proper because of Japanese coaching commitments, added to the celebration of Sharks rugby, which in the 2015 Super Rugby season, would reward attack.
This squad was going to entertain, score tries and win over friends of the running game. White’s Sharks were deemed dour, boring and condemned for having allowed a head coach to instill discipline, defence and conditioning as the pillars of their blueprint,.
White, in 2014, did the talking when it came to rugby matters. Now everyone had a voice and every day a player or one of the coaching staff was waxing lyrical about the joys of Sharks rugby and of the ambitions of an attack-minded team that wanted to entertain with five-pointers and not win because of an ability to deny the opposition five pointers.
Life, as a Sharks rugby player, was again good. Order had been restored.
Then the season started and the Sharks lost at home to the Cheetahs in the opener and the first month produced a team of individuals, ill-disciplined on the field, devoid of defensive desire and yet still convinced they were a content unit capable of winning the tournament.
White’s Sharks had conceded 22 tries in the winning of the SA conference and making the semi-finals. Gold’s happy campers in 2015, eight rounds into the competition, had conceded 22 tries. The Crusaders, reduced to 12 against the Sharks' 15 at one stage, put 50 past the Sharks in Durban and the Lions beat them in Johannesburg at the weekend.
But Smit, Gold and the players don’t agree that the Sharks are a squad in crisis. It’s all smiles within the group in Durban and the leadership has been dismissive of critique around the coaching appointments and player recruitment.
White is coaching Montpellier in France – a team he has improved and are now favoured to make the play-offs. He has done it through discipline and a respect for defence. But White’s is a cussed name in Durban because he did it his way. That upset the players and support coaches.
Sure they won the SA conference and made the semi-finals but rugby was apparently made to feel like a job.
Players, it's said, again have their voice and every coach is a voice in 2015. Rugby again feels like a sport and Monday to Friday is no longer an 8:30 start working day.
On-field discipline and defence are things that went with White.
Training is again a pleasure, as is playing because where White demanded discipline and winning, the perfect fit of coaches and players have agreed it's about entertaining and freedom of expression.
Hence, the continued defence of team unity and disregard and annoyance at anyone who describes the 2015 campaign as a shambles and suggests the word crisis.
Photo: Steve Haag/Gallo Images