John Plumtree (Gallo Images)
The Sharks were pummelled physically and mentally and John Plumtree has described the 12-32 Super Rugby loss to the Stormers at Newlands on Saturday night as one of his worst since taking over as coach in 2008.
The contest, in terms of the winning margin and the style of rugby played, was a total reversal of the Currie Cup final won 30-10 by the Sharks last October. Both games were won by a 20-point margin and the Stormers on Saturday, just as they Sharks did back in October, built victory on a fiercely confrontational approach and stern defence.
Contests between these two teams have been won by the team dominating the gainline and the Stormers were far more intense and physical at the collisions at Newlands, smothering the Sharks’ big runners and forcing turnovers.
But victory was built on more than courage and brawn and the Stormers also exploited their superiority in midfield and towered over the Sharks at the lineout where lock Andries Bekker caught everything that was thrown in his general direction.
In contrast, and because they received very little frontfoot ball, the Sharks were static in attack while their lineout was again a shambles. They did make occasional sorties deep into Stormers territory only to cough up ball at the breakdown.
Plumtree said it all came down to the Sharks’ mental approach.
“The Stormers had a better attitude than us. They wanted to smash us. They wanted to hurt us, really hurt us.
“We’re disappointed with ourselves – it was boys against men,” added the Sharks coach.
The Stormers, after being exposed on three occasions in Durban last year, appear now to have the answers to the Sharks’ direct, combative approach.
“The physicality and the power shift was with the Stormers,” said Plumtree. “They wanted to win more. We talk a good game but we’re not delivering.
“The Sharks performance was embarrassing more than anything else. It’s one of the hardest defeats I have had to endure as the Sharks coach.”
The contest was settled in the space of 17 minutes in the first half when the Stormers’ midfield domination was translated into three tries. The Sharks, trying to keep the ball in hand or use short kicks to break down the Stormers’ defence, were pinned in their own half for long periods and the three Stormers’ tries were as clinical as they were simple.
And, to Sharks captain John Smit’s chagrin, all were scored off set-piece possession.
The first saw centre Jean de Villiers easily ghost outside Meyer Bosman on a 35 metre run to the line; the second came when the Sharks tried to move the ball from inside their own half and De Villiers’ tackle on Bosman released the ball for Gio Aplon to nip over, and the third was from a Stormers’ lineout with flank Francois Louw’s short pass in midfield presenting centre Jaque Fourie with an open path to score.
The Sharks, on another day, might have questioned two of the tries with Bosman convinced that De Villiers had knocked down his attempted pass in making the tackle while the feed from Louw to Fourie looked forward.
But this was not a day to complain about decisions, not when the defeat was so comprehensive and the victory so deserved.
Smit admitted that he was suspicious about how easily the Stormers were wining the ball from the breakdowns .“I’d like to have a look at a video of the game.”
“But to have three tries scored against us off set pieces is inexcusable. We have only ourselves to blame and it left us chasing the game.”
At times the Stormers, in their determination to bully the Sharks on and off the ball, did overdo the physical stuff with Smit, Stefan Terblanche and, later, Bismarck du Plessis taking heavy hits off the ball.
But the Stormers had suffered similarly in the past and their bristling approach, in a game of this importance and in front of 46 000 supporters, was to be expected and admired.
Even the second-half replacements could do little to lift the gloom on a dark day for Sharks rugby but there was just time for both flank Jean Deysel and lock Alistair Hargreaves to at least show they are over their injuries.
There was nothing for Smit to smile about and he left the field limping heavily with a leg injury early in the second half while replacement Bismarck du Plessis was yellow-carded for a professional foul in the closing moments.
It was that sort of day for the players, coach Plumtree and the many Sharks supporters.