The Sharks fight to win for axed coach John Plumtree showed he never lost the support of his change room in a Super Rugby weekend when the Cheetahs were shown to be more pretender than contender.
Rarely have I willed a player over the tryline as much as I did the Sharks fullback Riaan Viljoen. When television cameras flashed to the celebration of Sharks and Springbok prop Jannie du Plessis I know I wasn’t alone.
The players all week, by word of Sharks captain Keegan Daniel, had dedicated their effort to axed Sharks coach John Plumtree.
The players wanted to win for Plumtree. Daniel said so. The players wanted to give the coach who had guided them to five finals in their last five tournament campaigns the send-off deserving of his loyalty to Sharks rugby.
They did it in the most dramatic fashion, but they did it showcasing every bit of resolve synonymous with Plumtree and Sharks rugby.
The hosts could have settled for a draw when awarded a penalty with two minutes to play. They wanted the win because taking the easier option of the draw would have been an insult to their former coach.
Daniel had promised the Sharks supporters player commitment against the Blues. They delivered the guts and they got the glory.
The match, as a contest, was not memorable. It resembled one of those after the fact matches between two teams who won’t be winning the tournament in 2013.
The Sharks were the more desperate because victory meant more than four league points. The Blues certainly didn’t match the Sharks in desperation, despite playing for continued life in the race for the lat of six play-off spots.
The match won’t be remembered for anything other than the Sharks showing that Plumtree had not lost the support of his players and that if it was up to the players – and not incoming Sharks CEO and former Sharks captain John Smit – Plumtree would still be in charge of rugby at the Sharks.
The Super Rugby weekend was one that restored order to what the season was supposed to be about. The Sharks beat for Blues for the ninth successive year, the Bulls manhandled the Kings in Pretoria, the Stormers savaged the Cheetahs in Cape Town, the Chiefs were too good for the Canes in Hamilton and the Crusaders crushed the hapless Highlanders in Dunedin.
There was familiarity about the results in a season that hasn’t always gone according to the historical Super Rugby script.
The Cheetahs have been brave all year but they are limited and I’ve never seen them as a play-off contender. They may still get the sixth spot but it will merely prolong their season by a week. They won’t be winning anything but friends in what is their most successful Super Rugby season.
The Stormers showed what could have been in a season of near misses for the Capetonians and the Bulls again displayed what can be in their outstanding season.
The Kings are out on their feet and the more I see the more convinced I am there won’t be a Cinderella ending to their first season in Super Rugby.
The tournament newcomers have been the success story of unified South African rugby in what they have achieved in 2013.
Kings Director of Rugby Alan Solomons was given six months – and no tournament guarantees with which to lure players to Port Elizabeth on three year contracts – to prepare a squad for Super Rugby.
Solomons delivered more than anyone could have expected.
The Kings won three matches and drew against the Brumbies in Australia. Neither the Western Force nor the Melbourne Rebels, in the tournament expansion, were as successful in their debut season.
But the Kings season will count for little against a backdrop designed for failure. The Kings players are fatigued and finished. I expect two more heavy defeats against the Stormers and Sharks and then I expect them to lose the promotion/relegation against the refreshed – and very impressive – Lions.
I then expect the trend to be reversed in 2014 with a fatigued and drained squad of Lions playing a refreshed Kings side in the promotion/relegation match.
South African rugby will sit with the self-inflicted problem until a tournament expansion in 2016 accommodates the Kings and Lions.
The Bulls can win this year’s tournament if they host a semi-final and final. If they have to travel overseas they will lose.
The Sharks and Stormers – rightly – will do everything to beat them.
The Bulls visit to Cape Town in a fortnight will determine where the former play their semi-final and by that time the appetite for Super Rugby will no longer be secondary to the magnificent Test series being played out in Australia between the Wallabies and the British and Irish Lions.