Johannesburg - The Golden Lions ensured that the Cell C Sharks’ 2014 Absa Currie Cup campaign ended a week earlier than it has since 2009 and the magnitude of defeat was embarrassing, but it might prove to have been the right thing to have happened if the Durban union is to go forward from here.
According to the supersport.com website, with the Sharks’ season now over following their 50-20 defeat at Ellis Park, the focus shifts to the issue of finding a replacement for Jake White, who moved on from the director of rugby position three weeks ago.
Former Bok assistant coach Gary Gold was understood to be the initial preference, though former All Black and Lions coach John Mitchell was a favourite among Sharks supporters and ex-players. But as the Sharks picked up momentum towards the latter stages of the Currie Cup, there was increasing speculation that the Sharks might just elect to stick with Brad Macleod-Henderson, Sean Everitt and Paul Anthony as the coaching group.
Such a suggestion didn’t show much rugby insight or understanding of what has really been happening at the Sharks this year, for that trio lack top level experience and the Currie Cup is a much lower level than Super Rugby. While the Sharks did finish the regular season with a bit of a flourish, their overall campaign was disappointing, and the win over Western Province in the final league match was against a second string Cape side.
Make no mistake the Sharks are at a disadvantage when it comes to the Currie Cup because they lose half their pack to Springbok duty. The Sharks’ pack is positively lightweight in the domestic season in comparison to what they have available for Super Rugby, and it does impact on what type of rugby they can play.
However, when John Plumtree was coaching them the Sharks invariably managed to overcome those drawbacks, as evidenced by them finishing top of the log and thus hosting home finals in 2008, 2010 and 2012. In fact, the Sharks have been in the top two every year since 2008 – until this one, with their third placed finish being their worst effort since 2007.
More and more Sharks fans are starting to perceive a step backwards for the Sharks since Plumtree’s axing last year. Brendan Venter was the right man for the job when he took over as director of rugby but he was never going to be there for more than three months, and it was always debatable how much White was vested in any long term vision for the union.
That means there is pressure to make the right appointment this time, and the result at Ellis Park this past weekend may have a silver lining for the Sharks if it means there is now less chance of the decision-makers being duped by the mirage that Currie Cup success sometimes is for top unions (the records in both South Africa and New Zealand reflect that domestic success and Super Rugby success seldom coincide).
Sharks CEO John Smit has said the process of identifying the replacement for White will be “exhaustive” and many of the ex-players who were his teammates and would still like to see their former union being successful will be hoping that means the option of a “wow factor coach”, in other words someone with experience, standing and an aura, will be considered.
The end result in the Currie Cup is surely an indication that just sticking with the status quo, meaning that Macleod-Henderson, who was coaching Hilton College not that long ago, becomes the Super Rugby head coach, is the least favourable of the three options available to them.
The other two options are that a) the Sharks appoint an experienced coach who can further grow the young coaches currently in position as Venter tried to this time last year, b) a cut be made in the player budget to accommodate a team of strong coaches with perhaps MacLeod-Henderson staying on to learn, a policy which has been responsible for the success of the Chiefs franchise.
Whichever way they go, the Sharks decision-makers, and that means Smit more than anyone else, will have to be spot on with the route they opt to take because the performances across all levels during the domestic part of the season, and that includes the age-group teams, has been disappointing and cracks are starting to show that weren’t there before.