Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town – Take a break from digging that hole ... perhaps a wooden box marked “Sharks team” isn’t quite ready for burial yet.
While the harsh fact remains that the Durban-based franchise have now surrendered three Super Rugby matches in succession, Saturday’s gutsy performance in 37-29 defeat against defending champions the Chiefs in Hamilton may, in its own funny way, serve as some sort of revival tool.
I had expected a particularly thumping margin of defeat for a decidedly makeshift-looking, injury-dogged Sharks outfit ahead of this first tour game, and when the Chiefs ran up a nightmarish 24-0 advantage after only 17 minutes, began to believe my 14-point prediction was looking ludicrously conservative.GALLERY: Super Rugby - Week 11
But instead of simply going belly-up there and then, the visitors only launched a highly spirited rearguard, and certainly never fragmented to that violent degree again for the remainder of an enthralling fixture.
It was 4-4 in tries by the final whistle, which also happily signalled an emphatic end to the Sharks’ three-match drought in that department.
As former All Black coach John Mitchell noted in the SuperSport studio afterwards: “They can take a lot out of today.”
That “lot” will hopefully include the ingredients for a stabilising, return to winning ways when they tackle the rock-bottom Highlanders in Dunedin next Saturday (09:35 SA time) before progressing onward to Australia.
So inspired had been the Sharks’ comeback at Waikato Stadium that it was an undeserved blow, frankly, when Aaron Cruden’s smack-in-front penalty after the siren snatched away a second bonus point for the losers: had they picked up a brace of log points, this defeat would have felt a lot more like an honourable “draw” on the road, after all.
Still, from the ashes of another loss come several seeds of hope ... not least the fact that the men from KwaZulu-Natal, for all their squad upheaval, never ran up a white flag mentally.
Almost inevitably, with all the hullabaloo surrounding the tour omission of senior loose forward Ryan Kankowski and other issues like Frans Steyn’s dubious conditioning, there has been gossip in Durban and beyond recently that veteran coach John Plumtree may be losing the respect of the dressing room. (Perhaps it is necessary to point out that such concerns have come more in the blog and Twitter environment than in the more mainstream press thus far.)
Be that as it may, at least on that score it seemed we were served up ample evidence on Saturday that this is firmly not the case.
If the Sharks looked a disorganised lot in that damaging, ultimately game-swaying first quarter, much of it was probably down to the enforced, mass re-arrangement of the side as a battery of core personnel have succumbed to inactivity over the last few debilitating days and weeks.
As a result, many tried and trusted combinations across the positions have suddenly ceased to exist; under those circumstances you are always going to suffer some pain as you hastily plug holes and are forced to try new things.
Their in-field defence, especially, was initially appallingly porous, but once they finally got over the whitewash themselves from a driving maul off a lineout in the 22nd minute, the whole urgency, zest and cohesiveness of the team altered greatly for the better.
One aspect of the widespread experimentation to pay unexpectedly healthy dividends so soon was the dynamic debut of 22-year-old Lubabalu “Tera” Mthembu at No 8.
He gave the New Zealand commentators some tongue-twisting challenges, but much more importantly also provided the Chiefs with moments of significant angst.
As Mitchell admiringly said: “He’s shown good footwork, and strength over the ball.”
It was a tribute to Mthembu’s courage and resourcefulness that when Plumtree infused both Keegan Daniel and Marcell Coetzee just before the hour mark, the rookie was the only member of the starting loose trio to stay on.
The Sharks’ turnaround, and the fact that at times they even looked as though they might earn a near-fairytale victory, was all the more commendable when you think about how some players have been forced into unfamiliar stations by the injury crisis.
Yet specialist No 3 Wiehahn Herbst gave an extremely solid account of himself on the wrong side of the scrum for him, whilst the much-maligned Steyn was suitably sturdy on his feet at less-than-ideal outside centre, and broadly more industrious than had been the case in some earlier contests.
The awful jinx in injuries may just have added another casualty, as Cobus Reinach – replacement scrumhalf on the night but normally the first choice – had to be aided off the pitch late on with what looked like a knee problem.
But Charl McLeod had earlier performed with much of his old relish at No 9, suggesting that if he is required to get a longer run of starts it won’t be a train smash to the cause.
Further consolation for the Sharks comes via knowledge that the South African conference remains desperately closely contested; they’re very much still in the hunt for the domestic top spot ...*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing