Johannesburg - The Cell C Sharks go into their first bye week of the season and for them it probably won’t be a moment too soon.
According to the supersport.com website, Director of rugby Gary Gold must feel like he has been chasing his tail ever since he arrived in Durban from Japan just 10 days before the Vodacom Super Rugby season kicked off, and he was not helped by the bizarre spate of red cards that kept him busy defending players at disciplinary hearings when he should have been plotting the way forward.
Gold’s employers arguably don’t fully understand the concept of the director of rugby, for what Gold is expected to do in coaching the team is very different to what he did when he performed the role at English club Bath, or for that matter the role that Gert Smal is fulfilling at Western Province.
The former Springbok assistant coach inherited a squad, he inherited the team leadership, and he also inherited the management team, none of which would have made it easy for him. And on top of everything else, injuries to key players such as Pieter-Steph du Toit and now Patrick Lambie have joined the red cards to Bismarck du Plessis, Frans Steyn and Jean Deysel in robbing the Sharks of experience.
Du Plessis and Steyn will be back in the mix once the overseas tour starts after the bye, as will Stephan Lewies, the lock who was one of the finds of last season. Paul Jordaan is expected to be back too after a long injury lay-off, which will add significantly to Gold’s options in the midfield, and perhaps that could mean that JP Pietersen, who also returns from injury, goes back to the wing.
But while the Sharks will be significantly strengthened on tour, the 17-10 loss to the Vodacom Bulls this past weekend was their third in succession and it leaves them with a mountain to climb if they still want to feature in the battle for conference honours. They are currently seven points behind the leaders, the Bulls, and five behind the Stormers, but one of those two teams will stretch that difference to nearer 10 points when they play each other while the Sharks are resting on Saturday.
With the Hurricanes, Highlanders, Blues and Reds lying in wait overseas, and one of the two home games remaining being against the Stormers, who are in form and won in Durban last year, it is hard at this point to see how the Sharks can make up the leeway, particularly as the Stormers play most of their games at home from now on.
However, Gold has vowed to fight to the bitter end, and he is not giving up on his hope that the Sharks could qualify for the play-offs as the top South African team.
“Getting away and clearing the heads is probably not a bad thing,” said Gold of the bye.
“But we have to stay in this fight. This competition is actually quite tight. We find ourselves in a bad position, and we’ll also lose further ground because of the bye, but under no circumstances are we going to give up this fight.”
Although the Sharks were outplayed more comprehensively by the Bulls than the final seven point losing margin might indicate, Gold should have taken some heart from the passion and spirit that his team displayed in the two games that have followed the humiliation to the Crusaders.
Gold said at the time that the Crusaders game was a turning point in that it woke everyone up to what was wrong, and although the results haven’t gone his way since then, at least it can no longer be said that the Sharks just aren’t pitching. There was a lot of energy in their defensive performance against the Bulls, and it appears that aspect of the game has been worked hard on since the Crusaders defeat.
At the same time though, New Zealand teams pose different questions of defensive systems than a team like the Bulls does, so Gold will be venturing across the ocean for the Australasian leg of the tour with some trepidation.
Before he does that he has a crucial decision to make relating to the captaincy of the side. With veteran Marco Wentzel presenting such a mature head and relating so well to the referees in the two games he has led the Sharks, this might be a good time for Gold to call Du Plessis aside and suggest to him that, with the World Cup to look forward to and build towards later this year, this is a time when perhaps he can do without the extra burden of the captaincy.
Something else that Gold needs to think about before the tour starts are his flyhalf options in the continued absence of Lambie, who will only return from injury towards the end of the competition. Fred Zeilinga wasn't great either with his place-kicking or kicking out of hand against the Bulls. Lionel Cronje could be an alternative, but another option would be to play Steyn at No 10 and continue with Andre Esterhuizen in the No 12.