Sport

UNITED RUGBY CHAMPIONSHIP

Sharks coach Plumtree calls for patience while rebuilding a team under tough circumstances

Sharks coach Plumtree calls for patience while rebuilding a team under tough circumstances
John Plumtree, head coach of the Sharks, prior to the United Rugby Championship match between Ospreys and Sharks at The Stoop on 3 November 2023 in London, England. (Photo: Gaspafotos / MB Media / Getty Images)

Sharks head coach John Plumtree has called for ‘patience’ and ‘time’ as he works towards rebuilding the team after many lean years.

The 2023/2024 United Rugby Championship (URC) might only be four rounds old, but for some teams it’s already approaching a crisis point in the race for a top-eight place.

You certainly can’t win the URC in November, but you could lose it.

The Sharks, propping up the overall table with one point after four games, are already 11 points adrift of eighth place, which is the final playoff position. They’re not out of contention despite a winless opening month, but they need to turn their fortunes around quickly or it will ensure a steep uphill road to the knockout stages.

Irish side Connacht are in Durban this weekend for a round five clash that has simply become a “must-win” game for the Sharks. Home wins are non-negotiable after four away defeats in succession for John Plumtree’s side.

Admittedly the Sharks had the toughest start to the campaign with away outings against Munster and Leinster, which they unsurprisingly lost. But poor performances against the Ospreys (lost 19-5) and Parma Zebre (lost 12-10) were a jolt.

There is no disgrace dropping a game to Ireland’s two major powerhouses on the road, but failing to fire a significant shot in their next two matches was worrying.

Plumtree though, in his second stint as Sharks coach a decade after leaving the union in acrimonious circumstances, is pragmatic and believes that foundations are being laid for both the medium and long term.

“We are not where we want to be and we are not always getting what I want us to do, and that is what causes the pain, but the pain will go away,” Plumtree said from Durban on Wednesday.

“The disappearance of the pain will come with more talent, which is coming. I know we need to find a way to win in the short term, and I thought that would come last week against Zebre, but unfortunately it didn’t.

“Sustainable success is the long-term goal. I am not sure how long it will take to get to that point, but we want to establish a quality foundation we can build on, and right now we are still building that foundation. We do have players under contract, we can’t change everything overnight.”

Disappointing tour

The Sharks have been underperforming for several seasons, despite a slew of high-profile signings such as Bok skipper Siya Kolisi and lock Eben Etzebeth.

Kolisi has moved on to Racing 92 in France, and the rest of the Springboks in the squad won’t be available for a few more weeks yet due to resting protocols after their victorious World Cup campaign.

Plumtree’s return was never going to turn the Sharks around instantly, but there is no doubt that recent results have been underwhelming.

“From a results point of view, the tour was pretty disappointing. We always knew the two games in Ireland would be tough. We were hoping for more from the game against Ospreys and obviously the Zebre game too,” Plumtree said.

“But at times we played some good rugby, and I thought we made some strides in the growth of our game. What that means is we are trying to play more rugby, but we are also making more mistakes because the ball in play time has gone up quite significantly. The number of passes has gone up by 70 to 80 passes per game.

“We are playing more rugby and we are wanting to build more pressure with the ball, but we are making mistakes, many of them basic mistakes that are because the skill sets of some of our players are not that good.

“Attack coach Dave Williams is doing a great job in developing the attack, but we are still not hitting the right options when it comes to the opportunities the team provides and creates through the structure.

“The playmakers and game drivers have to create the opportunities and to some extent they are doing that, but we haven’t been good enough to finish off. I am talking about things like the little chip over the top where we regather but don’t pass the ball. We are not there in terms of our attack, but we feel we are progressing to where we want to be.”

Neil Powell (Director of Rugby) of the Cell C Sharks during the United Rugby Championship match between Cell C Sharks and Emirates Lions at Hollywoodbets Kings Park Stadium on 23 December 2022 in Durban, South Africa. (Photo: Steve Haag / Gallo Images)

Balancing act

It’s always a fine balancing act between building for some undefined moment in the future and winning games and being competitive in the present.

For those on the outside, it’s difficult to become excited about the “bigger picture” when immediate results, but more worryingly, performances, don’t suggest growth.

That’s not to say there hasn’t been improvement according to the roadmaps Plumtree and director of rugby Neil Powell have set out for the players. It’s just that those improvements, if they are there, are not obvious from afar.

Experience, or rather, the lack of it, is a problem at the moment. With so many quality Boks not available, the Sharks are struggling to maintain a quality performance level over 80 minutes.

“We have to have impact off the bench, and at the moment we have six or seven 23-year-olds in the forwards and they have to front every week because there aren’t experienced players to carry the load,” Plumtree said.

“My son is 23 and as a father, I still see him as a baby who has a lot of growing still to do as a rugby player. So, I have a fair bit of empathy for the boys in the pack. I feel sorry for the boys who have to play every week and yet have so few URC games behind them.

“These are the sort of issues that will go away with time. But these young fellows need time. I am really excited about the future of some of these players. It is going to take time though. I really feel like I have a baby here and I am calling for people to be patient. I will continue to do that because if we have time, myself and Neil will fix it, I have no doubt about that.”

Plumtree also questioned the blanket rest being afforded to Bok RWC 2023 players.

“With someone like Eben [Etzebeth] and obviously Ox Nché and others who played a big part in the key games at the World Cup, I can understand,” Plumtree said.

“Those guys do need a rest because of their heavy workload recently. However, I think it should have been done on an individual rather than on a blanket basis as there are some players who really need to be playing after not being utilised much.

“An example is [scrumhalf] Jaden Hendrikse, who hardly played at the World Cup and in the warm-up games and was out of rugby before that after being injured in March.

“How is it helping Jaden’s rugby for him to be off the field when he has already been out for a long time. These decisions need to take the individual players’ needs into account.” DM

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