There’s a lot of negative talk about the Sharks at the moment, and I’m loathe to add to it. I don’t believe it’s particularly helpful. But the reality is that, despite a host of stellar players, the Sharks have sunk to the very bottom the URC table. It’s perplexing, to say the least, and obviously upsetting for fans.
Let’s be clear. Every team has their share of bad seasons. Once upon a time, the Lions were relegated from Super Rugby. But after being forced to sit out the 2014 season, they went on to make the final in 2016, 2017, and 2018. The Cheetahs were unfortunate to be dumped out of Super Rugby from the 2018 season onwards, when in fact, the Bulls performed worse than them during the 2017 season, finishing below them on the Africa 1 table, as well as earning fewer points than the Southern Kings, who were playing in Africa 2 and were also dropped from the competition. The Bulls bounced back, and are flying high at the moment. As are the Stormers, who, let’s face it, had their fair share of misery, financial and otherwise, but were able to put their issues behind them in impressive fashion to win the first URC competition expanded to include South African sides in 2021/22, and make the finals in 2022/23. And of course, we all know that the Springboks went through an extremely dark time between 2016 and 2018…and then went on to celebrate back-to-back Rugby World Cup victories in 2019 and 2023. The point is, teams go through rough patches, and while some of those hard times last longer than others, there is usually light at the end of the tunnel.
Knowing that doesn’t necessarily make it any easier for the fans who are having their hearts pulverised every weekend right now. In the case of the Sharks, it’s made tougher by the fact that their struggles (which, in fairness, are not new to this season, but have definitely gotten worse) are borderline inexplicable. The squad is absolutely stacked with talent. They have plenty of money. Arguably great coaches. And, at least at one point, a wonderful culture that in many respects reflects the Springbok culture. More on that later. So what is going on? How did this incredible team find themselves not only dropped out of the Champions Cup after last season’s less than impeccable URC performance, but now having an even worse performance in this season’s URC, with only one win from nine games?
There’s a lot of (very angry) speculation about this, a lot of it from people who don’t actually support the Sharks anyway. Calls for all the Bok players to go elsewhere, since they deserve to play for “better teams” (i.e. the team whoever is making the call supports). Calls to fire John Plumtree, who basically just got there, and send Neil Powell back to the Blitzboks. Calls to make wholesale changes to the team and get rid of 90% of the current players. And of course, accusations that the Sharks have become just a commercial entity with too much money to buy players, and not enough interest in developing their own talent or team culture. Lots of comparisons to football teams that mean nothing to me because, as we all know, I’m in a monogamous relationship with rugby, but I get the general sentiment that’s being conveyed.
Like I said earlier, I’m not sure any of this is particularly helpful. Firing coaches at this stage would be insane – and it certainly didn’t help when Sean Everitt got the axe. I have a deep nostalgic love for John Plumtree, combined with some niggling concerns that his coaching style may not have evolved enough over the years to keep up with the demands of the new competitions the Sharks are playing in, but he does at least deserve a season or two to settle in and prove his doubters wrong. As for binning most of the players, well…then what? It’s not realistic, nor is it merited in many cases. But there do need to be some tough conversations, that is true, and a re-assessment of what is needed in terms of talent acquisition and retention.
What’s needed are calm heads, and ideally, an independent assessment of where the problems lie. Making rash decisions and firing people left, right, and centre may give the baying supporters the blood they require, but it’s not going to solve the problem. And it is important that the Sharks get it right, not just because I love them, but because they are home to so much of our Springbok talent, so their performance does have an impact on the national picture.
That fact is certainly a part of the challenge they face. Having a team stacked with Springbok players is an incredible blessing – the wealth of talent available to the Sharks is phenomenal. But it comes with challenges too. Last year the Springbok resting protocols were particularly intense, because of the World Cup, but even in an ordinary year, having key players in and out of the squad can lead to the disconnect we’re currently seeing on the field. This is a team that seems to be struggling to gel. I also have some concerns about the messaging around the Boks vs the ‘other’ players in the team. We have a talented group of guys putting their hands up week in and week out, but when the marquee players return, and they are relegated to the sidelines, how is that being communicated internally? Because externally it’s a bit over the top, and that has to sting. If it’s not being managed correctly, that can have a significant impact on the team culture.
And I do think many of the current issues come down to culture, not a lack of talent or an overabundance of money. The Sharks have always been a team to pride themselves on their strong, happy culture. It’s the reason those big name players want to join them (yes, they have money, but so do a lot of teams). In many respects, I have considered them the team that most closely mirrored the Bok culture under Rassie and Jacques, prioritising happy players, family values, and the importance of transformation. I think they still prioritise those things, but there appears to be a disconnect. They have also always been a team that valued a relaxed atmosphere – if I think back to another time when they didn’t appear to be living up to potential, it was under Jake White…they are not a team that responds well to his authoritarian style of coaching. But, in an effort to have that relaxed atmosphere, have things gotten a little too laissez faire? There needs to be a balance, also reminiscent of what we see in the Bok camp. Rassie and Jacques value happy players and give them the freedom to be themselves, but there are also firm boundaries and very clear expectations. Transparent communication is key.
I don’t know what’s going on behind the scenes, and I don’t know if the players are unhappy, or tired after an endless 2023, or just struggling to connect with each other and their coaching team, but it does feel like we’re seeing more individual performances than cohesive team efforts at the moment. But to suggest that they don’t care about the team would be unjust. They definitely care. Boeta Chamberlain’s distress at missing the final kick that would have won the game against the Lions last weekend was hard to witness. My heart broke for him, and for the other players. This can’t be easy for them either.
Hard conversations are necessary, and are happening, I’m sure. A thorough, independent assessment of where the issues lie is even more necessary, in my opinion. I’d really like to see Rassie talking to players, management, and other stakeholders, including the owners, to get a sense of where things are going wrong, and what needs to be done to turn the situation around, but that may not be reasonable. In the meantime, while things have every chance of improving (and the team has already been looking significantly better in recent games, despite the close defeats to the Stormers and Lions), fans may have to accept that this is unlikely to be the season we hoped for. But sink or swim, we support our team – anything else is not an option.