Experience key in Sharks’ challenge

RYAN VREDE writes coach John Plumtree and the Sharks’ senior players’ experience is a plus going into a final where the odds are stacked against them.

I’ve written at length that travel fatigue will be their primary obstacle to success. The Sharks would have racked up around 35 000km in three weeks by kick-off. There has been plenty of rhetoric out of their camp rubbishing fatigue as a factor, but its affects cannot be discounted and is most likely to take hold in the final quarter.

However, they can take heart from the fact that they have a core of players who’ve been through the mincer and lived to tell the tale.

The haunting memory of their dramatic implosion in their previous final in 2007 against the Bulls will still be there. Frans Steyn’s missed conversion and subsequent fundamental errors (two missed touch finders the most notable of those) contributing to their 20-19 defeat. The Sharks have been to and won a major final since, capturing the Currie Cup in 2008, but the pressure associated with and desperation for the Super Rugby crown cannot be likened to that of the domestic showpiece. Neither can the pressure of the Tri-Nations or international tour compare to that of a Super Rugby final, where there is no shot at redemption the next week.

Ryan Kankowski, JP Pietersen, Bismarck du Plessis and Beast Mtawarira (all who’ll start for the Sharks on Saturday) were rookies in the team that lost five years ago. All were part of the 2009 Tri-Nations-winning squad, the last three key in the British & Irish Lions series win, while Du Plessis and Pietersen were central to the Springboks’ 2007 World Cup success. The lessons learned there and indeed through the disappointments they’ve suffered must come to the fore in Hamilton. And while Frederic Michalak, Jannie du Plessis, Willem Alberts and Keegan Daniel weren’t part of the squad for the 2007 final, the senior quartet also have a pivotal role to play in a side laden with players with little or no experience in matches of this nature.

Plumtree’s ability to instill belief and train the focus of his players, as well as formulate effective tactics, then adapt them to the match situation, will be decisive to the outcome. As the forwards coach he sat aside head coach Dick Muir in 2007 and would have learned from the latter’s mistakes, hooking key senior players being the most notable of those. Muir panicked, showing little appreciation for the match situation and the value of Percy Montgomery and John Smit in that setting. Plumtree is better a coach than Muir in all facets, particularly in his clarity of thought under pressure. This bodes well for his team.

With the fatigue factor becoming most prominent in the closing stages of the match (as it did at Newlands last weekend) it is imperative that the Sharks target the first 50-60 minutes of the contest. Taking a 10-12 point lead into the final quarter (14 would be ideal but unlikely) would put them in a strong position. From there the impact players can inject defensive punch, while those not substituted would be galvanised by the prospect of holding on for just 20 minutes with the Super Rugby crown the ultimate incentive for them to do so. The Chiefs have shown their propensity to veer from their plans under pressure (note that they have few players who’ll be familiar with the level of pressure this final will bring) and this would aid the Sharks’ cause to break their Super Rugby drought.

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