It is astonishing to think that less than three years have passed since the Sharks appeared in the 2012 Super Rugby final. They were lauded then as an example of what teamwork could achieve, flying 40 000km in three weeks to win two knockout games only to ultimately stumble, exhausted, at the final hurdle.
Eight members of the side that lost 37-6 to the Chiefs in the final at Hamilton were also in the one humiliated 52-10 by the Crusaders in Durban last week. How does a team packed with Springboks and expected to make the play-offs concede two tries while playing against 12 men? It is fair to ask the question on everyone’s lips: What has gone wrong?
It is not hard to isolate the moment that everything changed. On July?1 2013, John Smit was installed as the new chief executive of the Sharks, replacing BJ van Zyl. At the time, Sharks chairperson Stephen Saad paid tribute to the outgoing chief executive, saying: “In the past two decades under his stewardship, the Sharks have become the most followed provincial rugby franchise in the southern hemisphere. He has the respect of both supporters and adversaries alike. John Smit’s appointment marks the dawn of a new and exciting era at the Sharks.”
Part of the reason Saad was able to laud Van Zyl was the perceived stability he left behind. The Sharks brand, launched shortly before the professional era began, was recognised throughout the rugby playing world. There were times when it seemed that car manufacturers were actually giving away Sharks bumper stickers with their vehicles, so ubiquitous had the rugby-booted predator become.
There was continuity on the playing field and off it. Smit began his playing career in 1997 under Ian McIntosh, the man principally responsible for the team’s success in the 1990s. Mac’s coaching career ended in 1999 and most of his successors were members of the sides he had driven to greatness: Hugh Reece-Edwards, Kevin Putt, Dick Muir and John Plumtree. The latter was in charge for the five seasons from 2008 to that Hamilton final of 2012.
The exception to the former Shark template was Rudolf Straeuli, who coached them for slightly less than two seasons before taking over at the helm of the Springboks. Straeuli’s sorry end in the top job has forever tainted him in public opinion, but Van Zyl’s decision to bring him back to the Sharks in a managerial capacity was crucial to the franchise’s success after 2004. Straeuli’s legal background helped in contractual matters, while his eye for talent helped achieve strength in depth.
Significantly, the two men who were moved aside when Smit began as chief executive were Straeuli and Plumtree. Neither wanted to leave and neither has been adequately replaced. The Sharks’ loss has been others’ gain. Straeuli is now employed by the Lions, while Plumtree helped Ireland win a Six Nations title and is now assistant coach at the Hurricanes. The Wellington-based franchise has won its first seven games in this season’s competition and comfortably heads the log. It will not be long before Plumtree is called up to the coaching squad of the All Blacks.
Plumtree’s exit allowed Smit to employ World Cup-winning coach, Jake White. Taking over at the beginning of the 2014 season, White instilled the kick-and-rush tactics that had worked so well at international level. The fans missed the more expansive game favoured by Plumtree, but results were good until almost the end of the log season.
For some time, however, senior players had been at odds with White’s authoritarian demeanour. Rumours persist that the remarkable 30-25 win over the Crusaders in Christchurch in round 14 came despite, not because of the coach. Written off as no hopers by White, the senior players turned it on to spite him.
It has been suggested that White’s departure, less than a year after he began, was because of his insistence that his son be given a place at the Sharks Academy. But it is far more likely that too many senior players wanted him gone. Smit’s reaction was to once again rely on a coach he trusted as a player: Brendon Venter.
It is Venter’s second stint at the Sharks as director of rugby. The first was a bizarre passage in 2013 where he commuted to Durban from his medical office in Stellenbosch. In addition, twice a month he flew to London to continue his job as director of rugby at Saracens.
It was there that he first worked with Smit, who was with Saracens for the last two years of his playing career. Back in charge at the Sharks now, Venter is in Durban from Monday to Wednesday, with former Springbok assistant coach Gary Gold nominally in charge the rest of the time.
Gold, a genial presence for many years, now looks increasingly careworn as his side is denuded of star players through injury and indiscipline. Venter is no stranger to the latter, having been sent home by Nick Mallet from the 1999 World Cup. Venter had been red carded against Uruguay for stamping. In 2010, now in charge of Saracens, he was banned for 10 weeks after an altercation with a fan who had asked him to sit down.
Few people understand what prompted Bismarck du Plessis, Frans Steyn and Jean Deysel to commit out of character acts that led to red cards. Osmosis, perhaps.