Forget the Bulls. If a South African side is to do the unthinkable and sneak a play-off, it has to be the Sharks.
Because of the way they are playing. The Bulls one dimensional play will never get them the big wins overseas. This season was further proof of the limitations of the Bulls game plan away from home. The team will boast one win and a draw, but the win came against newcomers the Force, who have yet to win in the tournament. If this was Super 12, the Bulls would have returned winless.
As Victor Matfield said afterwards, the Bulls are a different team at Loftus. They are. The putty invariably turns to concrete and whimps become monsters. Don’t bet against them being the only team to knock over the Crusaders in three weeks time. But winning at home isn’t enough in this competition to get a top two placing and the advantage of a home semi-final.
Until a South African team actually hosts a home semi and a home final the prospects of a South African winner are slim.
The Sharks are an outside bet to advance to the top four, but they are a bet whereas the Bulls are wasted cash.
All credit to Dick Muir for ridding the team of Kevin Putt’s demons and having the faith to back certain youngsters, but more importantly trust certain oldies.
Much has been made of the influence of David Campese and Tony Brown. With no disrespect to the two, it sells short everything Muir has done with the team in the last year if we are to believe the only reason the Sharks look like a Super 14 team is because of the Australasian influence.
Watching the Sharks play reminds me of the 1997 Western Province team Harry Viljoen coached and Muir captained. They played a similar brand of rugby and with each win the confidence grew. With each win and each successful move the players started to trust themselves on the ball. They wanted to keep it and over the last few years all the South African teams have been more of a liability with the ball. They’ve relied on bone-crunching defence to turn opposition mistakes into five and seven pointers.
But if you want to be competitive in a tournament that lasts four months, you’ve got to be able to attack space, run great angles, keep your composure on the ball, offload in the tackle and know when to throw the 50-50 pass and not just throw it away. Significantly for the Sharks is how much depth they have added to their attacking game. There is always a support runner and therefore there is limited panic. Passes go backwards to the support runner and not just laterally in close contact, where a turnover is always a possibility.
Depth in runners was one of the key ingredients to the successful 1997 Western Province team. It is the same with these Sharks.
But it takes an expressive personality to introduce this style of play and it takes a super confident one to trust it when results don’t go the team’s way.
Muir is both personalities and while he has been accused of naivety in his approach, perhaps this kind of naivety in believing anything is possible is just what a South African team needed in a coach. Muir has always believed in his youngsters, but he has never abandoned his veterans, especially AJ Venter.
The Sharks, after two years of hell, are recreating the dazzle. Muir, more than any other, is responsible for that. Speak to the players and ask them where the turnaround has come. Yes, they acknowledge the efforts of Campo and Brown, but it is Muir who has been central to the new found energy.
Generally, the mood has improved in Durban. The Wildebeest are top of the Vodacom Cup and the Super 14 squad is giving extensive opportunity to younger and black players. On all accounts they are succeeding this season and while expectation in the union is such that a top six Super 14 is not the standard, it most definitely is a start.
Criticism of the Sharks in the past two seasons has been harsh, but is has been necessary and justified. A union with a player budget spend of R30 million was underperforming in every aspect. But this season we’ve seen the approach of a team not content with a top six in the Super 14, but with a mission to be a top four team and a top two in the Currie Cup.
Muir has started something in Durban that Capetonians enjoyed with the Stormers of 1999, when the team should have gone all the way. This time it needs to be carried through.
If the condemnation of the Sharks last year was crass, then the cheerleading this year has to be equally vocal.
This is a team that has to be judged on performance and results. In the past two years they have produced neither. This year they have produced both.