Sharks lay foundation for the future

THE Sharks became the first South African franchise to lift a European title at the weekend when they won the EPCR Challenge Cup. BackpagePix

THE Sharks became the first South African franchise to lift a European title at the weekend when they won the EPCR Challenge Cup. BackpagePix

Published May 27, 2024


Mike Greenaway

FOR much of this season it did not look like there was an end to the losing in sight for Sharks supporters, but director of rugby Neil Powell says the coaching staff believed their behind-the-scenes work would pay off.

At the weekend, the Sharks beat Gloucester in the Challenge Cup final to win a place in next season’s Champions Cup, and a season of doom and gloom has given way to celebration.

Powell has given context to the Sharks’ turnaround from 10 United Rugby Championship defeats in 11 games to winning the Challenge Cup.

BONGI Mbonambi of the Sharks celebrates after beating Gloucester in the final at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium. Backpagepix

“It has been a difficult season and the public only see the results, but we have been putting foundations in place for a long time,” Powell said.

“There has been a big effort in getting the guys to connect and to get momentum going on the pitch. It takes time for the guys to find each other and we believe we have a lot in place to be successful next season.”

The former Blitzboks coach said the Sharks’ coaching team started from scratch last September.

“We had a whole new coaching staff under a new head coach in Plum (John Plumtree),” he said.

“The only assistant coach left was Warren Whiteley and he switched from defence to line-out coach.

“We needed to find synergy, whether it was the coaches or the players. We had to establish a connection,” Powell explained.

“Most successful teams have had stability and consistency over three to four years and that was lacking at the Sharks.

“It took the guys a while to connect around the new game model introduced by Plum and (attack coach) Dave Williams. They had new ideas.”

To be fair to the Sharks, the build-up to the new season was an unusual one in that it was post the 2023 World Cup and that meant long periods without the team’s best players.

“To be without our Springboks for so long was challenging,” Powell admitted.

“Our Boks did not take part in our pre-season, which was all about how we were going to change the way we played.

“On occasions when we did have them, the first time they would be in our system was on a Monday before we played on the Saturday. It was difficult to get them 100 percent aligned with what we were doing.”

Powell is confident that the wrinkles have been ironed out.

“Winning a trophy confirms we have come a long way over the last six months. We have laid a foundation for the future.

“The culture and environment have come right and we are a happy squad now.

“We want sustainable success. We want to be one of the top teams in Europe in the URC and the Champions Cup, and to have a shot at that we had to do some hard yards first.”

Eben Etzebeth, the triumphant captain, has given some background to what he calls “the dark days” when the Sharks suffered a series of demoralising defeats.

He said a period of uncertainty was inevitable given the changes in coaching staff ahead of this last season. It was a case of the assistant coaches and players understanding what Plumtree wanted from them.

Plumtree first coached the Sharks from 2008 and 2012 and on his return last August for a second tenure, it took six months and a mountain of losses before the team began to click.

Fortunately, that was in time for the Sharks to make a successful fist of the Challenge Cup.

Etzebeth said: “When you come into a new environment like the coaches did, it’s not going to change overnight.

“You probably need a couple of months for everyone to buy into your plan and that has now happened.

“Once you start getting victories, you start believing in the plan and we’re there now. Most of this season has not been great, but it will get better next year.”

Importantly, Etzebeth has given Plumtree his stamp of approval and that is huge given the Springbok centurion’s stature in the game.

“The latter part of the season has been much more successful than the start, but with Plum, I think we all like him; he’s a great coach, a great man.”