Durban – The most predictable thing about sport is that it is unpredictable. It is why we love rags-to-riches stories such as that of the Sharks this year.
Who could have predicted that the miserable lot that lost at home to Griquas in round one of the Currie Cup would three months later defy the odds to win the title at a highly inhospitable Newlands?
Griquas went on to finish last in the Currie Cup and have been relegated.
The Sharks dug deep, backed their new coaching staff and their strategies, and doggedly fought on to win their seventh and most unexpected title since 1990.
It was an extraordinary result after a season of seismic upheaval in the Shark Tank.
The players have seen a revamp in the boardroom, welcomed new chief executive John Smit in July, said farewell to the Super Rugby coaching team, and had to reinvent themselves under a new coaching regime lead by Brendan Venter who, in turn, has been replaced by Jake White.
For a player, the most important thing is that there has always been a plan and a structure,” said captain Keegan Daniel.
“Of course, there has been huge change on and off the field, but going forward was actually easy because we knew where we stood under Brendan Venter, and it all goes back to a pre-Currie Cup camp that allowed everybody to have their say.”
When Venter took over from John Plumtree, one of Smit’s first initiatives was to hold a week-long camp for all squad stakeholders at the Sibaya Casino complex, north of Durban.
“The players sat down with the CEO, the new assistant coaches in Brad Macleod-Henderson and Sean Everitt, and Brendan explained clearly how things would operate, and we respected what he had to say given how much success he has had with Saracens,” Daniel said.
“Everything was laid out. There was clarity as to what the coaches wanted, and what we wanted as players,” the captain said.
“There was honesty and there was transparency between coaches and players, and players thrive on that. We agreed to a squad policy with the idea that teams win matches and squads win competitions.
“Some critics might not like rotation but with the amount of rugby being played, it works. A lot of guys who did not play in the final contributed significantly during the season.”
And on the big night, it was the big name players who came in for the business end of the Currie Cup to complete the hard work the journeymen had done during the campaign.
“I have a saying that big players have big games when it really matters, and that showed in the final,” Daniel said. “Our Boks were outstanding. In the past it has been a let-down (when unfocused Boks have not excelled in finals), but tonight they showed what they are capable of.”
It was a sentiment shared by defeated Western Province coach Allister Coetzee.
“The Boks they got back in their pack during the week made all the difference,” Coetzee said. “The Sharks forwards were outstanding. We have never been hit so hard by a Sharks pack. We have played them twice this year and they were tough at the collisions, but this time they were on another level.
“After each tackle, two or three of them climbed into the breakdown and made sure we did not get quick ball. They won the collisions, for sure. That is why they picked their big boys (such as Willem Alberts, Bismarck and Jannie du Plessis, Marcell Coetzee and Beast Mtawarira, and they really pitched up, unlike some previous occasions.”
Coetzee said his team had been caught out by the Sharks’ tactic of avoiding the defensive line with niggling chip kicks into space.
“Their tactics took us out of our comfort zone,” he said.
“They really worked out our defensive system. Credit must be given to how the Sharks applied the pressure by not attacking and kicking into space. They then came off the line really hard and disrupted the breakdown. It was a very effective plan.”