Durban - Last year was one of the most confusing seasons ever for a Sharks follower.
The 2012 Super Rugby Cinderella story suddenly found a new script last year and, ironically, were most brutally exposed during 40 minutes of Jake White-inspired Brumbies “footie” that left the home supporters gasping for air.
And while they were catching their breath, the foundations at the “Shark Tank” were being shaken all around them.
Out went Brian van Zyl upstairs, soon followed by John Plumtree from the bench.
In came John Smit in a suit, and Brendan Venter, in a collared shirt occasionally, but also in jeans, or shorts – and sometimes in his doctor’s threads.
Somewhere in the midst of all this, Brad McLeod-Henderson and Sean Everitt were coaching, and the players were making a fist of things in the Currie Cup.
That the Sharks players had the sense of occasion – and cheek – to pinch the oldest domestic title in world rugby, from Cape Town of all places, was of great comfort to fans of the black and white jersey, who had probably gained more grey hairs last year than they would care to count.
Never mind the petrol price and the politicians. Keeping up with the goings-on at King’s Park last year was exhausting enough. But, the surprises have kept on coming.
For one thing, White is back. And he has come bearing freaks.
“Bismarck du Plessis is a freak,” White said emphatically, as he announced his captain for the 2014 season.
“Frans Steyn is a freak,” he later added, waxing lyrical about the unique talents that the 26-year-old veteran possesses.
Whatever reservations observers may have of the 2007 World Cup-winning coach, one thing he does manage to do is get inside the heads of his key players. He could even be described as rugby’s equivalent of Jose Mourinho, for the manner in which he commands loyalty and respect from his players.
His pronouncement that Aussie players were “smarter” immediately won over a young Brumbies side, and they defied the form book in last year’s Super Rugby season. Many went from novices to internationals within six months.
Similarly, his immediate declaration that Pat Lambie was a “10” in his eyes will be a shot in the arm for a cheeky talent that was starting to go back into its shell, wearied by bench-warming and mixed signals.
Backing the bullocking Du Plessis to lead from the front may also be considered as a masterstroke, and may yet see the world’s best hooker engaging more with referees for the right reasons.
But, in a side full of stars, the curious case of Frans Steyn, for example, may well be highest on White’s agenda.
“Frans will play at 12 for me,” he said simply.
White then explained that he had sat Steyn down and explained to him that he needed him now, more than ever, to show the world what he was capable of.
“I’m lucky because I know what makes him tick. Last year, he came back probably not in the shape that he wanted to be. He got handed the captaincy… and then had two or three coaches,” White reasoned.
“His personality doesn’t really suit that, because he likes stability in his life. His whole life has changed now, too. He’s married, got a kid… so his whole value system has changed,” he added.
Despite these personal changes, White is very excited at the prospect of what Steyn can provide Lambie, the cast-iron flyhalf, this season.
“With Frans at 12, you will see a much better Pat Lambie. Even at 80 percent, Frans is a better player than most people at 100 percent. We will do whatever we can to make those two the best 10-12 combination in the competition,” he insisted.
As director of rugby, White said he was all about creating an environment that allowed talent to be identified early, with everything geared towards the first team.
“It’s a bit like being master in charge of rugby at a school. I go down to the various teams, and I see which Under-14s could play for the first XV in five years’ time,” he quipped.
Already, he has plucked Tyler Fisher from the “Under-14s”, and the youngster will get a chance to impress against Saracens next week in London.
“I was very excited about what I saw when I was with the Under-19s this week,” White beamed.
Everyone within the Sharks coaching structure – as complex as it is – seemingly understands their roles, and White said he was more than happy to stand back and let last year’s Currie Cup final masterminds take charge.
After all, nothing lasts forever. As any Chelsea fan will tell you, Mourinho, roped in by a young and ambitious boss, brought back the glory days to Stamford Bridge. But he also left suddenly, sensationally, not dissimilarly to White’s exit from Canberra.
If White can get his assortment of freaks, veterans and fresh-faced hopefuls singing from the same song-sheet, he may well earn the title of “The Special One”.
Either way, 2014 is already shaping up to be another entertaining year at the “Shark Tank”.