The problems within the Sharks' structures and culture run deep and aren't going to be solved overnight, writes JON CARDINELLI.
How bad are the Sharks? The stats after nine games tell part of the sorry story. Five losses, including a 52-10 humiliation at the hands of the Crusaders. The third-worst record for tries conceded (23), the second-worst for points conceded (224), and the outright worst for missed tackles (195).
And how about that discipline? They’ve incurred three red and three yellow cards to date. Those numbers may continue to climb in the coming weeks, as the innate frustration, anger and patent lack of control manifests itself in costly transgressions.
The log suggests the Sharks haven’t hit rock bottom. But make no mistake, they’re getting there. There's a strong chance they will lose to the Vodacom Bulls this coming weekend. Things may go from bad to worse on their subsequent tour to Australasia.
Many experts have expounded on the Sharks’ problems over the past two weeks. Former coaches such as Nick Mallett and John Mitchell have waded into the debate, and suggested there are deep-rooted issues with the disciplinary structures. Some have suggested the current director of rugby, Gary Gold, has inherited several other problems from his predecessor.
But then former Sharks mentor Jake White isn’t responsible either. Indeed, I sat through countless post-match press conferences where then-coach John Plumtree lamented the team’s lack of fire and control. Plumtree’s damning indictment of ‘You can’t coach attitude’ said as much for the players’ indifference as it did for the limitations of his own coaching.
Plumtree has since moved on, and has done exceptionally well with Ireland and now the Hurricanes. I agree with those who say that Plumtree was treated poorly in the great Sharks takeover of 2013. But if there was an issue, it was how Plumtree was sacked, not that he was sacked. It was time for Plumtree to move on, as he had grown stale at the Sharks and the team, as was evident by their mediocre log finish, wasn’t getting any better.
The next two coaches, Brendan Venter and White, enjoyed short-term success with the Durban-based team. Venter took what had worked at Saracens and implemented a similar culture at the Sharks. It yielded a trophy in the form of the Currie Cup. But his commitment to the Sharks was only for that tournament, and so the players had to adjust to a new coach and philosophy ahead of the 2014 Super Rugby competition.
White was big on discipline and structure, which didn’t sit well with the some of the senior players. And yet, by the end of that tournament, the Sharks had scored three wins in Australasia, won the South African conference, and qualified for the semi-finals. If White had stuck around in Durban for a couple more years, the Sharks would have continued to build instead of sliding back into bad habits.
I know for a fact that some of the current players still talk about what White and the side achieved in 2014. So much was made about the Sharks’ limited game plan last year, but one has to wonder how the Sharks may have evolved if the coach and team had remained together for a three-year period.
White worked hard to discipline some of the senior players. He got the best out of Frans Steyn. He took a gamble when he made Bismarck du Plessis captain, but it appeared to pay off as the Springbok hooker proved an inspirational on-field figure. And yet, White also made it clear to the Sharks' bosses that if the team was to move forward, he needed assistant coaches who weren’t so patently out of their depth.
Brad MacLeod-Henderson was appointed as head coach for the 2013 Currie Cup, and fronted the media after the Sharks beat Western Province in the final. But everybody knew Venter was the real mastermind behind the Sharks’ success. Indeed, when Venter and then White withdrew, and MacLeod-Henderson was left to run the team in the 2014 domestic tournament, the limitations of the Sharks coaching team were exposed.
The backroom boys continue to be exposed today. Gold was a late appointment as director of rugby, joining the Sharks on the back of a stint with Japanese club Kobelco Steelers. He has accepted all of the blame for the Sharks’ current run of results, which is unfair considering he played little part in the squad’s pre-season preparation. He had no say in the recruitment of the management team, or the players.
Smit must shoulder some of the blame for the Sharks’ current position. While the players should be vilified when they deliver apathetic showings, the Sharks management should also come under scrutiny.
What value is somebody like defence coach Michael Horak adding? The Sharks lacked attitude and accuracy in that eight-try defeat to the Crusaders. Some will look at the scoreline of the 23-21 loss to the Lions and suggest the Sharks improved. And yet, the stats show they missed 35 tackles. The players should be held accountable, but so should the coaches as well as the people who appoint the coaches. Something is clearly not working.
So where to from here? The Sharks will continue to fight the tide in 2015. They’re missing a host of players due to injuries, suspensions and Springbok resting agreements. If they were to make the play-offs, it would be a surprise. After losing five of their first nine matches, it’s clear they won’t host a semi-final.
They won’t improve unless significant changes are made to the coaching structures, changes that will impact positively on the team culture. It may only be April 2015, but it’s time to start thinking ahead to 2016.
If Smit expects Gold to continue with this Sharks side next year, he must allow Gold to bring in his own assistants, people whom he feels will add value. The director of rugby should have more say in the players who are recruited.
The franchise can’t continue along its current path. The Sharks are one of the biggest teams in world rugby, and their current position is unacceptable. Changes need to be made sooner rather than later.
Photo: Steve Haag/Gallo Images