If John Plumtree’s current team is victorious on Saturday afternoon, it will be a surprise to most, even if the Bok-boosted Sharks seemed to have turned the corner last week with an impressive slaying of the Dragons.
JOHN Plumtree says he joked with his Sharks team that he was playing at Loftus Versfeld in the black and white of Natal some time before any of them were born.
He is right, of course. He was part of the team that engineered the greatest upset in the history of the Currie Cup, when Naas Botha’s Northern Transvaal were humbled in the 1990 final.
Plumtree also knows that not a vast amount has changed over the past 30-odd years — Sharks victories in Pretoria continue to be rare and often upsets. And if Plumtree’s current team is victorious on his old stomping ground on Saturday afternoon, it will be a surprise to most, even if the Bok-boosted Sharks seemed to have turned the corner last week with an impressive slaying of the Dragons.
Plumtree has picked the same squad almost en masse — there is a forced change at 14 where hamstrung Werner Kok is replaced by Aphiwe Dyantyi.
“I have been part of some epic struggles at Loftus,” the coach said, grinning.
“These are two sides with great histories and I’m sure everyone is looking forward to another exciting battle.
“I was last there with the Hurricanes (as coach),” Plumtree said, casting his mind back to his playing days, and also his first tenure as Sharks coach (2008-2012). “I know the way there, that is for sure.”
Plumtree also knows how crucial it was to get a morale-boosting win last week. Had that game been lost and added to the five preceding defeats, the Sharks would be going to Loftus to keep the score down.
“Winning last week was important for our confidence, but also the way we won was vital,” he said.
“We scored 10 excellent tries and played at the right intensity. The week before, Connacht were going down injured so much that we could not play at the intensity we wanted, but last week the referee handled the game well and it flowed.”
Much has been made of the return of Eben Etzebeth, Ox Nche, Jaden Hendrikse, Grant Williams and Makzole Mapimpi, but Plumtree says the return of the Boks should not be overrated.
“Getting back some class players boosts confidence, for sure,” he said.
“The better players have more time on the ball, they have the rugby smarts in terms of organising. Bringing those boys back made a big difference.”
But is there an expectation for the Sharks to go on a winning streak simply because they have their Boks back? Plumtree does not see it that way.
“I certainly don’t feel that pressure. For me, it is about building a good team. It is not about a whole lot of individuals coming in from the Boks.
“The key to any successful team is how they mould together. Yes, we have very good players coming back, but the rest have to play well too.
“We are not the Springboks, we are the Sharks. We can control our plan and our effort and that is the only pressure I will put on the boys.”
Continuing this theme, Plumtree was asked about the surfeit of World Cup winners that will be on show at Loftus and he reiterated that this would have little bearing on the outcome.
“I am not counting the Boks in either team. They have some and we have some, but is about who has the best team. It is Sharks versus Bulls — it will come down to the team that gels the best, not who has the most World Cup Boks.
Kick-off on Saturday is at 3pm and that means the visitors will face the twin influences of the heat and the altitude.
But Plumtree says external factors are not a focus for him.
“We don’t talk about the humidity in Durban and we have not spoken about the heat in Pretoria,” he said.
“It will be hot for both team. It will be the players that can dig the deepest in the darkest times — that is the challenge. Both benches will have a huge impact, that is what makes it even more of a challenge for us.
“We want to play the game at the highest tempo — whether it is hot or cold. There is a danger we might run out of puff, but if we play well, maybe they will run out of puff first …”