The eventual promotion of Curwin Bosch to the Sharks’ No 10 jersey, followed by the (perhaps not co-incidental) victory over the Waratahs last week, is no indication that all is well in the Shark Tank. Something is deeply remiss.
Shakespeare put it this way in Hamlet: “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark….” The stench became too much for many who have an affection for the Sharks when their team backed up a brilliant performance against the Lions at Ellis Park with two losses at Kings Park – a 50-point hiding by the Jaguares followed by a despairingly poor performance in losing to the Reds.
The tipping point was reached for fans that had been thrilled by the near perfect display against the Lions only to see the same players bereft of all guile and deception on attack against the Jaguares and the Reds. Just shapeless, unimaginative, one-off running that was entirely predictable and so easy to defend.
In the channel which should have been the cradle of creativity — flyhalf — the spirit of invention had been snuffed out.
The whispers in the Kings Park stands became roars on social media as disaffected supporters voiced their disapproval not only of the macro problem of the rank inconsistency that has plagued the Sharks under Robert du Preez but also the micro issues such as perceived favouritism in selection that smacks of nepotism.
The press in Durban at last unholstered their pistols and suggested there had been too many whispers of discontent from the players (off the record) for there to be no truth to them, and that there indeed appeared to be different sets of rules for certain players when it comes to selection.
The unhappiness came to a head when recalcitrant Natal rugby legend Tony Watson had an open letter to the Board of the Sharks published in The Mercury.
Watson, the scorer of the most famous try in Sharks history — the winning score in the 1990 Currie Cup final at Loftus Versfeld — called on the Kings Park hierarchy to concede they had backed the wrong horse in the “unpopular” Du Preez and sack him, and reinstall Dick Muir (who parted ways with Du Preez on the Sharks coaching staff late last year because of “a conflict in coaching philosophies.” )
Muir would be supported by an interim staff that might include personable former assistants in Grant Bashford (John Plumtree’s right-hand man) and Sean Everett (who after being displaced on the senior staff has gone on to spectacular success with the Sharks Under-19 side).
There has been criticism in some quarters of the relevancy of the comments made by a former player that retired in 1993 but the outspoken Watson clearly still has the ear of those in office at the Sharks.
This was reflected in the damning statement: “In a pre-season meeting attended by Gary Teichmann, Robert du Preez and Dick Muir to discuss the importance of a selection committee (because the coach had three sons in the squad), Robert made it very clear that he was in the fortunate position that his three sons picked themselves and therefore there would be no controversy.
“Instead, for two years we have been starved of the mercurial talent of Curwin Bosch and the team has had to endure a selection policy that must surely create nasty undercurrents.”
Watson is alluding to the zero opportunities given to Bosch at flyhalf since Rob du Preez arrived in Durban from Western Province in 2017. And what has made this fact all the more conspicuous is the dreadful form of a clearly fatigued Du Preez this season. He was relentlessly started all through Super Rugby last year and into the Currie Cup, then spent the SA off-season at Sale Sharks in England, arriving back in time to start Super Rugby 2019 … a spent force.
The flyhalf issue, though, is a microcosm of the deeper, underlying issues at the Sharks. One of those is the hot-and-cold effort from the players that is the chief reason for the inconsistency that dogs a team that (last year) could lose by 50 to the Rebels in Melbourne, put 75 past the Blues the next game and then return to Durban and have the Bulls put 40 on the Kings Park scoreboard.
How many times has coach Du Preez either praised his team’s effort or criticised them for a lack of it? We hear how “they never mentally pitched” or were “out-passioned” …
At half time in the Waratahs game last week, former Shark Butch James praised the team for their “improved effort.”
Why is the question of effort even being debated at the Sharks? Can you imagine Crusaders coach Scott Robertson ever raising effort, or lack thereof, in a post-match press conference…?
Effort from happy teams is a given. It does not come and go, ebb and flow …
It appears that the Sharks are a reactive team that responds to external stimuli for top performances, such as a player reaching a special milestone (The Beast breaking the record for SA Super Rugby caps against the Lions) or collective embarrassment at horrific defeats to the Jaguares and Reds spurring a win in Sydney.)
The Sharks were in fact predicted by the Durban press to beat the Waratahs because this fitted in with a well-recognised pattern. And even if the Sharks make a decent fist against the champions on Friday it should not mask the fact that change is needed at the Shark Tank.