It is about a year ago that Jake White was boldly embracing the hype over the Sharks’ status as Super Rugby title aspirants, stating that his charges would, indeed, go the distance with the other contenders and then knock them out.
Three quarters of the way through the competition, White’s contention was threatening to blossom into fruition only for the Sharks to inexplicably (at the time) implode with a series of shock defeats, notably in pre- and post-tour matches at home to the bottom-placed Cheetahs and the injury-depleted Stormers.
Not long after, the Sharks were laid out on the canvas in Christchurch in the play-offs, and two months later White said he was standing back from the Currie Cup. Then White announced he was moving to pastures new.
There was no surprise that White had not fulfilled his four-year contract, but even the most dubious critics of White’s appointment reckoned he would last longer than a year.
That brings us to the eve of another year of Super Rugby combat. So what is in store for ever-perplexed Sharks fans?
White has become Gold, and back in from the wild blue yonder is the maverick, enigmatic Brendan Venter, in the guise of technical director.
Call him what you want, Venter is damn good. The one-time Springbok hot-stepper breaks moulds as a coach and the innovative game plan he engineered to win the Sharks the 2013 Currie Cup final against Western Province at Newlands has become the stuff of coaching yore.
In the space of three years, and across Super Rugby and the Currie Cup, the Sharks have had coaches in John Plumtree, Venter, White, Brad McLeod-Henderson, and now former Bok forwards coach, Gold (plus Venter, again).
Sharks chief executive John Smit will want the (Gold) dust to settle.
The players are overdue the luxury of management stability to underpin their performances on the field. The genial Gold and Venter will go where White could not: into the hearts of senior and junior players alike. It turned out that the allegedly despotic White ruled by fear, quashing any threat of democratic insurrection from the players and reducing the recalcitrants to supporting roles.
White apparently lost the changeroom (probably explaining those inexplicable defeats) and swiftly moved on.
Gold has barely been in Durban since his appointment because of his parting coaching commitments in Japan, but has popped up above the Kings Park parapets to make a pre-season statement of his own – that under his stewardship the Sharks will play an enterprising brand of rugby that will not only win games, but also be pleasing to Smit’s season-ticket holders, not to mention the fence-sitters who wait until the day to decide if the Sharks deserve to be watched live at Kings Park instead of on TV at home, with a fridge not far off.
Who will forget White ironically stating that his best “fetcher” was his son on a Saturday afternoon at home when dad was thirsty. White was reflecting on a question about picking Luke Watson for the Springbok team, and would not appreciate Gold’s veiled criticism of the Sharks’ dour playing style under White – it won most of the games, but was excruciatingly dull and ultimately did not warrant the bread on which it was buttered.
Going into the final rounds, the Sharks were counted out on their feet. They were among the contenders separated from the potential champions.
White’s means did not justify the ends because his boring percentage rugby did not win the title, which was the only result which would have excused that way of playing, as it did when the Boks won the 2007 World Cup under White, when the paint on the walls of the Stade de France threatened to peel off in protest.
The Sharks have the vision and the expertise in Gold and Venter to have a genuine crack at the title, but do they have the players? Categorically, yes. And most of all in the positions that count the most, nine and ten.
At flyhalf, Patrick Lambie might be young at 24, but he has played 40 Tests, and last year his merry-go-round trip in the Springbok and Sharks backlines ended and White and Heyneke Meyer picked him in his favourite position.
Lambie is maturing and this World Cup year could well see him blossoming into his potential. Alongside him is Cobus Reinach, who is building towards his best. This pair have the ability to take the Sharks all the way should they stay injury free, and at this stage are favoured to take their act to the World Cup stage.
They will depend on quality ball from their forwards, and again the Sharks are well served by players hitting their peak. Bismarck and Jannie du Plessis are surely going to take a big pay cheque in France post the World Cup. So, too, Beast Mtawarira and Willem Alberts.
Hitting his prime is Marcell Coetzee, a flanker who could well become the best in his position in the world this year, Richie McCaw and all.
And watch out for the second-row pairing of refreshed-from-injury Pieter-Steph du Toit and former England international Mouritz Botha.
The Sharks are a team for all seasons in 2015. They have a dynamic boss, the coaching staff and the players.
They have no excuses.