Dick Muir has delivered on his promise to turn chumps into champs.
Muir sacrificed possible Currie Cup success in 2006 with a two-squad system to establish the definitive Super rugby squad. And after six rounds of the 2007 Super 14 you have to say the tournament is there for the Sharks to lose and not for others to win. Bulls supporters will argue otherwise, but that’s something we can debate on the eve of the first ever all South African final when the Sharks host the Bulls.
The Sharks draw is similar to the one that took them to the final in 2001 – a year in which the Sharks blew a 1st place finish by dropping a game to the Reds in Brisbane. Back then the Sharks management got ahead of themselves when playing a second team against the Reds. Initially it seemed to work with the Sharks leading 17-3, but they crashed in the second half and it meant they finished second and had to travel to Canberra for a final.
This year there should be no travel post their league excursion to Australia and New Zealand.
The squad has depth in all areas and their demolition of the Cheetahs in Bloemfontein was their best display in two years. They should never have trailed by a point at halftime and the second half dominance was reflected on the scoreboard. The Cheetahs never scored a point in the second forty and never looked like breaking the defensive line.
I backed the more pragmatic approach of the Cheetahs to triumph, but the pragmatism on Saturday belong to the Sharks. Muir in the past has been accused of playing vulnerable romantic footie, but (in tandem with forwards coach John Plumtree) there was nothing romantic about the way the Sharks destroyed the Cheetahs. It was a clinical execution of the game plan, even if the finishing was abysmal at times. JP Pietersen had he concentrated should have had three tries. Defence, though, won the Sharks the game and the Cheetahs were clueless in trying to work a way through the Sharks defence.
Once the Sharks first line of defence had refused to buckle physically, the Free Staters were not in the game.
Muir has put together a fantastic squad and for those players on the fringes of the starting XV he has balanced game time between the Super 14 and Vodacom Cup. The plan has come together and with Plumtree there to plot against a team made up mostly of the Wellington NPC side, it would take a mightly stumble for the Sharks to lose at home to the Canes this weekend.
I’m backing them to stay unbeaten in the league stages if they keep their focus and the players don’t get ahead of themselves. There’s not a team good enough to beat them currently and the only side that could undo them is a full-strength Crusaders. But that’s a battle likely to be fought in the play-offs when the Saders travel to Durban.
For now the Blues, in New Zealand, pose the greatest threat when the Sharks tour, while the Chiefs (boosted by the returning All Blacks) deserve respect. The rest are limited and the Sharks must be favourites to win in Perth, in Brisbane and in Cape Town.
Muir has done a brilliant job, but my sources in Durban tell me Rudolf Straeuli, in his role as recruitment chief, has been as instrumental in building the squad. The decision to involve Tony Brown in 2006 was inspirational. And bringing back Bob Skinstad will also prove a masterstroke. The word is Skinstad was very good in his third match for the Wildebeest and is due a place in the Sharks match 22 on Saturday. I interviewed him a fortnight ago for the SA Rugby Magazine cover story and he is in the best physical shape of his career.
Sharks CEO Brian van Zyl, belted in the past for a cheque-book culture, has also hit back with the quality of individual being produced at the Sharks Academy – an institution established under his guidance.
The Sharks are doing many things right and that has to be good news for South African rugby.