Winning is a habit, and so is losing. You have to go back to May 8 2009 to find the last time the Lions won a game of Super Rugby. For the record, they beat the Highlanders 27-22 at Ellis Park.
Two years on and a rejuvenated Highlanders side beat the Bulls at fortress Loftus last week to complete a three-match winning streak. By contrast, the Lions have lost all three of their opening games. True, they have come close enough to sniff victory in each game, but a loss is still a loss.
The preseason optimism, engendered by an aggressive recruitment drive and the pedigree of former All Blacks coach John Mitchell, is beginning to leach away. So, while the improvement is there for all to see, Mitchell would surely prefer to be in the boots of another New Zealand native, John Plumtree, right now. (Plumtree and Mitchell were both born in the Taranaki town of Hawera and are close friends.)
The difference in their occupations is that Plumtree has been involved with the coaching set-up at the Sharks since 2007 and inherited a strong squad when he took over from Dick Muir as head coach three years ago. But Mitchell was brought in for the Lions’ Currie Cup campaign last year and inherited a rudderless ship that was haemorrhaging its few good players to other provinces.
Surely the two have been in close contact in the past weeks. Indeed, Plumtree might have been thinking of Mitchell when he said on Tuesday: ‘There is such a fine line between winning and losing. We have to make sure our preparation is good and that our attitude is right to give us the best possible shot at victory.”
Last season the Sharks lost four of their first five games by five points or less. This year they have won three in a row and are being talked about as title contenders. But the Sharks have three more games in Australia and New Zealand and even when they return to these shores there are more banana skins in the way.
Victory in the Currie Cup last year seems to have had a galvanising effect on the Sharks. Asked whether he felt trepidation before the game against the Blues in Durban a fortnight ago, Plumtree said: ‘No. We expect to win every game we play.” There is a world of difference in that attitude from the one that necessarily informs the actions of the Lions. The Lions hope to be competitive; the Sharks expect to win.
There are signs that the Sharks are about to usurp the Bulls as the premier team in South Africa.
The great generation that propelled the Bulls to prominence in the past decade is coming to its natural end. Bakkies Botha has secured his pension scheme with Toulon, Fourie du Preez expects to play in Japan after the World Cup and Victor Matfield has no new worlds to conquer as a player. The world of coaching awaits the most cerebral of all South African forwards.
Wynand Olivier is showing signs of having carried one crash ball too many, and Morné Steyn appears to have reverted to the fine but limited player he was before his annus mirabilis in 2009. There will be no free fall: the structures put in place by Heyneke Meyer and Frans Ludeke will make sure of that. It may even be too soon to write off the Bulls’ chances of defending their title, but there are clear signs that the blue machine is beginning to rust.
The Sharks, on the other hand, can look to a bright future thanks to a squad filled with talent, much of it still wet behind the ears. There was something unmistakeably hungry about the way they dismantled the Western Force in Perth last week. They carried the ball from deep positions and, after some trial and error, recognised the need to stay away from the extremities and take the path less travelled: straight down the middle.
After a couple of misfiring home wins, the Sharks found an extra gear in the final quarter in Perth — and there is clearly more to come.
It is always invidious to single out individuals, but three men helped the Sharks to click: Rory Kockott, Jean Deysel and John Smit.
Two years ago Kockott was regarded as Springbok material, but he was really the main reason that the Sharks could not score tries, with a poor passing game and an eye too fond of the gap.
Kockott has moved to the Lions, but Deysel and Smit are still with the Sharks and slowly returning from injury.
In Deysel and Smit’s absence Willem Alberts has come into his kingdom, while Bismarck du Plessis has become the world’s best hooker. Deysel will provide wonderful backup to Alberts when he rejoins the squad, while Smit seems destined to play out the final season of his Sharks career as a bit-part player on the bench. Not the way he might have wanted to fade away, perhaps, but the balance of the side without him is too obvious to overlook.