Opinion: Time for Sharks ‘Ferrari’ to sort the clutch after fixing the gearbox

Jared Wright
Sharks backs Aphelele Fassi and Curwin Bosch and head coach John Plumtree.

Can the Sharks end their dissapointing season with some silverware?

The Sharks head into the Challenge Cup quarter-finals with the opportunity to turn a disappointing season into one with a glimmer of hope for what is to come.

There was a palpable sense of anticipation for the Durbanites under Neil Powell’s leadership and John Plumtree’s return, especially with the addition of several top-notch players.

A season that promised so much

A United Rugby Championship title charge looked on the cards, as did a deep run into the Challenge Cup after being denied a position in the EPCR’s top tournament despite finishing higher in the standings than Cardiff.

However, the sweet taste of optimism quickly soured as the Sharks lost their opening five games of the URC season before hammering the Dragons 69-14. That victory in November gave fans a whiff of hope that they may be turning their season around, but five back-to-back URC defeats followed, effectively ending any chance of making the knockout stages.

Sharks and Springboks legend John Smit spoke emotionally about his former team and compared it to a beautiful Italian car but one that couldn’t go anywhere a key cog in the machine was missing.

“As much as it pains me to say, the Sharks are on the bottom end of it,” Smit said. “They have a magnificent-looking team. It’s like walking through a parking lot and seeing a Ferrari, but as you peer through the window, it has no gearbox. That’s the reality.”

Alas, the tide is turning for the Sharks, having passed the midway point of the season after claiming three out of four wins in the Challenge Cup pool stages and thumping Zebre in the round of 16.

Prior to that win over the Italians, the Sharks also claimed URC wins over Ulster and, importantly, Edinburgh – led by former head coach Sean Everitt, whom they will face in the quarter-finals.

The gearbox is fixed

The men in black put in an emphatic performance against Zebre, scoring seven tries, conceding just three points, en route to a 47-3 thumping.

The gearbox did stutter in the pull of conceding an early penalty as the Italians took the lead, but once fly-half Siya Masuku took control of the wheel, they started shifting through the gears, scoring nearly two tries per quarter.

Masuku threw a beautiful blind pass to Vincent Tshituka who tore through the Zebre defence and then the star names started to make their mark with Makazole Mapimpi going close on a few occasions with fellow winger Werner Kok dive over. Lukhanyo Am linked up wonderfully with the in-form fly-half as Corne Rahl breezed through the sluggish defence to further extend the lead to 21-3 at the break. The Sharks continued in that fashion throughout the match and it was capped off by a stunning solo effort from replacement back Curwin Bosch, who Masuku has usurped from the starting lineup.

It was a particularly signficant win considering the last time these two sides squared off it was the Italians who emerged 12-10 victors, snapping a 29-game winless streak in the URC. That remains Zebre’s only win in the URC this season and, at the time, encapsulated just how far the Sharks had fallen from the side that reached the playoffs in the URC and Champions Cup last season.

This time around, and with all due respect to the Italians, the result was a far fairer reflection of the talent and resources of the two teams and should prove to be a turning point in a rather sombre time in Durban.

Still, titles or at least a title challenge was expected from the Sharks this campaign, and while their URC hopes are dead and buried at this point, a tantalising opportunity to become the first South African team to win the Challenge Cup awaits them.

They should have expected to sweep aside Zebre comfortably, and did, but they face a far more daunting task against Edinburgh this weekend. With the gearbox seemingly fastened tightly and with few miles on the clock to properly lubricate the gears, speed and torque should be no problem for the side playing in their own backyard.

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Sorting the clutch

However, as many car owners will know, once you fix one issue, another is bound to pop up, and the Sharks’ mechanics will be keeping a close eye on the vehicle’s handling and clutch in the upcoming matches.

Edinburgh arrive in Kwazulu-Natal with a host of Scottish international and downright superstars, including the likes of Bill Mata, Hamish Watson, Jamie Ritchie and Duhan van der Merwe – even if he doesn’t know where Durban is.

Pound for pound, they are a far more equal opponent for Plumtree and his charges than Zebre and while the Sharks shifted through the gears and produced a performance somewhat worth of the class and talent at their disposal, this is bound to be a tighter fixture.

Masuku performed wonderfully against Zebre in a dazzling performance akin to watching Michael Schumacher glide through corners on a F1 racetrack back in his heyday, but on Saturday and going forward his side will need the performance reliability of a Toyota Hilux if they are to win the Challenge Cup – which should be their goal from here on out.

With Champions Cup qualification for next season out of their reach through the URC, winning the Challenge Cup is the only way the Sharks get back to the EPCR’s top tournament, and really, with the Springbok-laden squad and depth they will have next season, if they are not in the Champions Cup their star-studded squad – which will be boosted by another two World Cup-winning Boks – will be as useful as Lamborghini in bumper to bumper traffic.

Edinburgh are less likely to roll over as Zebre did once they score bloated beyond two tries, and the game management and ruthlessness of the Sharks will come to the fore, it will be another litmus test and one they must pass if they are to have any hope of progressing further into the competition. They were comfortable against the Italians who didn’t put them under pressure but will they be able to produce in a far fiercer fight?

Traditionally, in the Challenge Cup, due to domestic form and commitments, clubs will not take the competition too seriously, allowing youngsters and fringe players the opportunity to make the mark – case in point, Montpellier, who fielded an academy side against Ulster – but change tack if they find themselves in the quarter and semi-finals.

With the prospect of facing Clermont or Ulster in the semi-finals awaiting them and one of Gloucester, Ospreys, Benetton and Connacht in the final, it will be no easy task for the Sharks, but they are certainly in with a chance.

The best teams make the most of the clutch moments when they arise, and while the Sharks have certainly not been the best team this season, they can really prove their Ferrari pedigree with a stunning opportunity to clinch a maiden intercontinental title.

Quiz: Can you name all 44 two-time Rugby World Cup winners?