A heart of green and gold

John Plumtree remains adamant that for him when it comes to rugby, South Africa is No 1, writes MARK KEOHANE in Business Day Sport Monthly.

John Plumtree’s wife is South African. His son is South African. His team of choice, as a player and coach, the Sharks, is South African. Often, Plumtree is referenced as the Sharks’ New Zealand-born coach, but he sees it differently. When it comes to rugby he’s more South African than Kiwi. In fact, he’s more Shark than anything else.

Plumtree has aspirations to coach the Springboks, as is the case with any South African coach. He identifies with South African rugby more than any other and while there will always be a proud Kiwi in Plumtree, when it comes to rugby the identification is very South African.

The jersey Plumtree prides most is a Springbok Sevens jersey, earned in 1994 when representing South Africa at the Hong Kong Sevens.

‘I reckon I must have been the first Kiwi to wear the green and gold,’ he jokes. ‘It was a surreal moment in the change room; a very special moment. A very strong Springbok Sevens team went to Hong Kong in 1994. Andre Joubert, Henry Honiball and Joost van der Westhuizen were among the stars of that team and I felt proud to be considered good enough for the squad,’ says Plumtree.

‘I grew up a Kiwi kid with dreams of playing for the All Blacks against the Springboks and here I was wearing the Springbok jersey and I felt massive pride in playing for South Africa. They were New Zealand’s traditional foe and they were the team that commanded the most respect among the older folk.

‘The greatest challenge for an All Blacks player was to beat the Springboks in South Africa and I grew up with a sense of wonder and awe at the men in green and gold. They had a mystique for me. As a young rugby player I always wanted to play in South Africa; I got the chance in 1988 and ended up staying for nearly 10 years before returning to the Sharks to coach in 2006.’

South Africa is home to Plumtree and has been for some time. Professionally, his coaching may still take him to Europe or New Zealand, but in an ideal world home is Durban, South Africa and work is in South Africa.

‘The country has given me a family, a home and a wonderful lifestyle. It has given me opportunity. South Africa has been very good to me and I’d like to think I’ve embraced the country and given as much as I can to it. I’ve been in South Africa for the best part of 20 years and love being here,’ says Plumtree.

‘My coaching took me to Wales, where you could say I did my apprenticeship with Swansea as a young coach and furthered that with four years as Wellington coach in New Zealand. But for the rest it’s all been here in Durban, as a player and as a coach. I’ve never felt I had to choose between New Zealand and South Africa; if anything I consider myself fortunate to have experience of both because of the strong rugby connection. I have enormous respect for the rugby in New Zealand and an equal feeling for the game in this country.’

Plumtree has worked with some of New Zealand’s and South Africa’s best players and says the similarities make the rivalry so intense.

‘Both have an appetite for physicality and for playing a direct game. Both want to be the best in the world and have the work ethic that goes with it. If there was a difference I’d say there’s more pressure in South Africa at schoolboy level to win because of the rivalry between the major rugby playing schools, whereas in New Zealand there is a greater focus at schoolboy level on playing good rugby. The pressure here would be to win at all costs; there the pressure would be in the skills evolution of a player at schools level.

‘Professionally, though, there isn’t much to choose and that is why there seldom is much in matches at Super Rugby and Test levels. There has been the odd blowout from the Boks and from a South African and Kiwi Super Rugby side, but generally, as a Kiwi side, you have to play bloody well to win in this country, and the same is true of any South African team wanting to win in New Zealand.’

Plumtree played 80 matches for the Sharks between 1988 and 1997, having played 40 provincial games in New Zealand prior to that, which culminated in selection for All Blacks trials in 1989. His best rugby memories are playing for the Sharks and winning two Currie Cup medals and he takes pride in the achievement of winning the Currie Cup as a player and as a coach.

‘I was part of the 1996 squad as a player and in my first season as head coach in 2008 we won the cup again for the first time since 1996. To say I have won the Currie Cup as a player and a coach is a big thing for me because it also shows just how long I have been here and it is a competition that means a hell of a lot to me. I understand the history of the competition and I know what it meant to win it as a player at the Sharks. So I will never treat it as secondary.

‘There’s Super Rugby, which we want to win and there’s the Currie Cup, which we want to win. Both have equal status. One is the premier international tournament we play in and the other is the premier domestic competition. We had a chance to complete a rare double in 2012 in winning both and fell at the last hurdle. It hurts because we got so close to something really special, but the motivation has to be that it is possible to succeed in both tournaments and the group of players this year is more experienced, more mature and equipped to certainly be successful.’

The defeat in the Currie Cup final against Western Province rankles Plumtree more than the away defeat against the Chiefs in Super Rugby because it was a final he believed his team was good enough to win.

‘It is the one area we simply have to correct as a squad. When we are looking down the barrel we somehow find an escape and a way to win but when the hard work has been done and the expectation is there that we should win we have stumbled. Western Province played very well to win the final but home finals are occasions you have to make count. We had done all the hard work, benefited from consistency in getting a home semi-final and final and then to stumble … well you pick an adjective …’

Consistency is something Plumtree feels the Sharks have lacked in Super Rugby and to win the tournament he believes a team has to start well and end well.

‘The Crusaders and Bulls in their best years showed this consistency. They won enough to get the home semi and home final and while it is a huge advantage playing at home in the final it is also reward for a consistent season,’ says Plumtree. ‘I know we were up against it last year in having to travel to Australia, back to South Africa and then to Hamilton in New Zealand in 10 days but had we started the tournament better, it would have been another team doing the travelling to Durban.

‘It is the nature of the competition and it’s a competition I love being a part of. It tests everything about you as a player and as a coach. It tests the depth of your squad, the mental resolve and it also tests the ability of the coaching staff to manage the playing demands of the squad. I personally love the tournament and I enjoyed the expanded version in 2012.’

Plumtree favours the June break when internationals are played and says a tournament as long as Super Rugby needs a break.

‘I guess the key is not to have too many international players away on Test duty because we saw how a team like the Crusaders struggled post the June internationals. They were just hitting a peak before the All Blacks’ three Tests against the Irish and their players, who were superb at times against Ireland, just never hit the same heights in the remainder of the tournament.

‘The Sharks, by contrast, benefited from the break. We had a chance to reassess, get our injured players back on the park and we also had the benefit of a bye in the first week after the break. I found our players were refreshed and our Springboks gained a lot from that one-week bye. We went on a roll, so it works both ways. As a coaching team we learned a lot from last year, in terms of managing the squad and maximising game time for the entire squad.’

Plumtree, six days after the Sharks’ Super Rugby final defeat in Hamilton, started the Currie Cup campaign against Western Province in Cape Town, and he made 14 changes to the side beaten by the Chiefs.

‘The travel and playing demands forced those changes and we won in Cape Town, which shows you what is possible. I think having so many players away on international duty has allowed us to develop talent at Currie Cup level, which may not have been the case if all our players were available every weekend. It is why the Currie Cup for me will always have prestige, as a tournament, and as a showcase of the next generation of star players in South Africa.’

Plumtree has an expectation of his squad, but won’t differentiate between the need to win and develop quality players and improve the quality of those already in the system.

‘It can’t be one at the expense of the other. The nature of the sport is you have to win but you can develop and win at the same time if your identification is right. I have been so impressed with what Gary Kirsten has done with the Proteas. He has taken risks, always spoken of a bigger picture, be it an ODI World Cup, a T20 series or a Test series. You know what he wants to achieve and he hasn’t been afraid to introduce youngsters at the same time.

‘He has a clear plan, which has been well communicated, but he has also been very clear about the priority in results, which was to win the Test series in England and Australia … which they did. In the interim he has introduced a virtually new T20 side and made many adjustments to the ODI side. I think South African rugby, at national and provincial and regional levels, can learn a lot from what Gary has done with the Proteas cricket side.’

Plumtree, this season, wants a closer working relationship with the national coaches and with whoever can add to the success of the Sharks.

‘I don’t think we share enough in South Africa. I think we can learn from each other, at franchise level, and at national level and we definitely can learn from other codes,’ says Plumtree. ‘A lot of rugby people look to New Zealand but the system is completely different, especially the way in which the NZRU contracts the Super Rugby players and the working relationship that exists between the national coaches and the franchise coaches. You could only take from New Zealand if Saru was contracting the players. They aren’t.

‘There’s a lot right with rugby in South Africa and we have the luxury of so much natural talent. I’d say we need to invest more in the intellectual capital that there is on a coaching front in this country, encourage our players to have a go and take risks without fear of being dropped. We certainly also need to talk more, among ourselves in rugby and to those in other codes, to make South African rugby an entity that can consistently be as strong as New Zealand, and hopefully even stronger.’

– This article first appeared in Business Day Sport Monthly, which is distributed FREE with Business Day newspaper on the second Friday of each month.