Ruan Pienaar came out in strong support of Dick Muirâ€™s decision to completely overhaul the side that had been successful for him this season ahead of the Absa Currie Cup semi-final.
Six players who werenâ€™t named in the starting line-up announced last Wednesday, including Butch James, Johan Ackermann, Skipper Badenhorst and Keegan Daniel, were selected in the run-on side for the clash against the Vodacom Cheetahs on Saturday.
Muir yet again discarded Brent Russell, who was the obvious choice to replace Adi Jacobs after he was declared unfit to play, opting rather to shift JP Pietersen to the wing to accommodate Francois Steynâ€™s positional switch from flyhalf to fullback.
But despite criticism of the tactic, Pienaar showed solidarity with Muir and rejected the notion that it had cost them the chance of making the final.
â€œWe trained with that team all week, so it wasnâ€™t a spur of the moment call by Dick,â€ he explained to Keo.co.za. â€œI really donâ€™t know why he selected the team he did because I am not part of that selection meeting. What I do know is that we have a big squad and all the players in that squad are capable of starting any game.
â€œSo when people say that that is what cost us, itâ€™s nonsense.â€
In reality, the Sharks were always underdogs, having lost thrice to their hosts this season and facing their eighth consecutive defeat to Rassie Erasmusâ€™ charges. Muir obviously felt the need to spring a surprise and that manifested in his decision to make the selection calls he did. Conservatives and liberals in the rugby fraternity will have very different views on the tactic, but to attribute the 30-14 loss to this one factor alone would be foolish.
Pienaar admitted that the Sharks were shell-shocked at the intensity and pace at which the Vodacom Cheetahs started the game, which also prompted Muir to bring on his more established players, and highlighted the opening 30 minutes of the first half as particularly decisive to the result.
â€œWe made a really bad start and we hardly saw the ball until 10 minutes from half-time. By the time the changes were made it was too late,â€ he said.
â€œDefensively we were not great and missed too many first time tackles. On attack we pulled it back towards the end of the first half and early in the second, but we panicked a bit, and threw a few 50-50 passes and made basic handling errors when we were in good scoring positions.â€
The Cheetahs silenced their critics in the Sharks camp who inferred they were a predictable side, by striking with three backline tries, as opposed to the three driving mauls they scored through in their win in Bloemfontein in the league stage three weeks ago.
Erasmus admitted their tactical kicking in that game was not good, but Bevan Fortuin and co. were outstanding off the boot this time, finding space with their kicks, and ensuring the player recovering the ball was always under pressure.
â€œThereâ€™s no way they are predictable,â€ Pienaar said. â€œRassie is a very clever coach who is able to get the best out of his side. They managed to change their tactics from the last game really well by giving the ball a lot more air than they did then, and showed they have good running backs, who complement their pack superbly.â€
But Pienaar refused to allow their season to be defined by the loss and was adamant that the year has been a success, citing impressive showings in both the Vodacom Super 14 and Absa Currie Cup.
â€œWe almost made the semi-final of the Super 14 and now weâ€™ve lost in the semi. We are very proud of our efforts, especially when you consider how young this team is,â€ he said.
â€œSure thereâ€™s lots of hard work lying ahead, but we are confident that next season holds the promise of a really successful campaign in both competitions.â€
By Ryan Vrede