Durban - Until the South African teams began turning the tide in the United Rugby Championship at the weekend, an impatient rugby public was questioning the wisdom of our teams’ participation, but a painful period of adjustment was always going to be the case.
At the weekend, the Sharks beat the Ospreys, the Lions narrowly lost 13-9 to the Glasgow Warriors, the Stormers drew with Edinburgh and the Bulls beat Cardiff.
And this is without a host of South Africa-based Springboks that were on duty in the Rugby Championship and are currently enjoying a two-week break before they head off on the November tour to Europe.
More than any other team, it is the Sharks who have been almost crippled by the unavailability of front-line players. They are missing Siya Kolisi, Lukhanyo Am, Bongi Mbonambi, Ox Nche, Sikhumbuzo Notshe, Makazole Mapimpi, Sbu Nkosi, Grant Williams, Jaden Hendrikse ... all of whom have had some kind of Springbok involvement.
Then of their new signings, Eduan Keyter (the former Griquas flyer) has been injured, and not available because of Covid isolation before this current tour were Argentinian flyhalf Joaquin Bonilla, Australian centre Ben Tapuia and Samoan flank Olajuwon Noa.
That is almost a full team of stars the Sharks have been without before they hurried off — just a week after the Currie Cup final —to play full-strength Munster and Glasgow.
It has been an unreasonable ask of the South African teams and you can be sure that in the days of Super Rugby, SANZAAR would not have permitted the SA teams to travel to Australia and New Zealand with under-strength teams, although to be fair to the orgnanisers of the URC, the rugby landscape is all over the show in these times of the pandemic, and a lot of tournaments are playing catch-up after so much rugby was lost.
Sharks CEO Ed Coetzee says: “People must understand that where we are now is not normal — it is not normal to tour without your best players, it is not normal to have four overseas games in a row in the URC (usually it is two overseas games at a time), it is not normal for us to have to play our first two ‘home games’ in Europe, but we will take our medicine and get on with it because we know that eventually the playing fields will level out and there will be normality.”
And for the Sharks, there will be some cavalry on the way when the Boks finish their November tour.
Coetzee says that Kolisi and the other Sharks Boks are willing to join up with their provincial teammates before their match against the Scarlets on November 27 having played against England the week before.
That game against the Scarlets, plus the Sharks’ game on December 4 are “home” games that will be played at a European venue still to be announced.
It is not until the new year that crowd attendance at Kings Park is envisaged. The Currie Cup starts in mid-January and the URC will be underway in February.
With those two competitions running concurrently, the Sharks will have two sets of coaching teams as there will be weeks when they will be playing matches in both tournaments.
In the meantime, the Sharks are continuing to find their way in the URC against the backdrop of a solid greater plan for the franchise, with the financial backing of their American-based partners and local sponsors ensuring the Sharks are in a much better place than most of their local rivals.
The Sharks conclude their tour on Saturday against Cardiff.