A valid point of concern is that the Sharks are the only South African side still in contention to win the tournament – Brendan Venter wrote for SuperSport
Although the Durban-based franchise topped the combined conference for the lion’s share of the season, the Sharks’ recent slump in performance and result underline the fact that Super Rugby is a marathon rather than a sprint.
While fatigue is certainly a factor over a competition spanning as many as seven months, I believe that addressing the symptoms rather than the root cause is counter-intuitive.
The constant refrain is that our players play too much rugby and are subsequently tired. Yet for the most part, as coaches, we don’t actually do anything to rectify the situation, which is my greatest bugbear.
In my opinion, the Sharks have been bitten by failing to plan for and implement a squad rotation system this season. The truth of the matter is that they boast the best playing squad in South African rugby, yet have not fully tapped into their deep pool of resources.
Netherlands coach Louis van Gaal summed it up succinctly when he said that squads rather than teams win tournaments. Simply put, 11 footballers alone cannot win a championship and, in rugby parlance, neither can 15 players.
I believe the best coaches are those who are able to eliminate unhealthy competition among players by bridging the divide between the first and second-tier of talent. All players need to feel valued, respected and a worthy part of the bigger picture.
If I reflect on our World Cup-winning campaign in 1995, while the late Kitch Christie conceptualised a gold team – regular first-team starters – and a green team – back-up players – all of us knew where we stood in the grander scheme of things and were willing to put team success ahead of our own personal ambitions.
Returning to the Sharks, while the likes of Springboks Bismarck du Plessis, Willem Alberts and Frans Steyn are unspoken first-team starters, the quality of Kyle Cooper, Keegan Daniel and Heimar Williams, for example, is wholly sufficient to fill the breach when required.
Moreover, Charl McLeod, Odwa Ndungane, Dale Chadwick, Tera Mtembu and Fred Zeilinga are valuable assets with experience and potential and would in no way weaken the team.
In Cooper’s case, branding him as a back-up player would be unfair. He’s a talented hooker in his own right and well capable of sharing the significant workload of his skipper.
Meanwhile, in regards to Daniel, he is a Super Rugby centurion who boasts a wealth of experience, which I believe could have been better utilised over the season’s duration.
As far as Williams is concerned, while the up-and-coming star is admittedly not yet on the same level as Steyn, I know for a fact that the former would never let the team down if and when afforded a starting berth.
The art of the rotation is so much more than just starting a “weakened” team against the Cheetahs, for example. Instead of making wholesale changes, introducing new players alongside a senior core is crucial.
The success of said rotation system is not exclusive to match situations alone. It also comes down to cumulative training time in the week.
South African coaches, in general, need to adjust their thinking and utilise squad rotation systems, now more than ever, owing to the increased exodus of senior players and the reality of fatigue and accompanying injury.
In the Sharks’ case, the irony is that over the course of the season, they possessed players of the necessary quality to fill the breach when the likes of Du Plessis, Alberts and Steyn required some much-needed respite.
For the betterment of South African rugby, I believe it’s essential that coaches begin imbuing a squad mentality rather than a win-at-all costs approach.
As a professional coach, you simply cannot play your first XV week-in and week-out and expect peak performance to follow. In closing, it’s not all doom and gloom for SA rugby – the Sharks still have a really good chance of winning the trophy as they possess a very strong squad and are historically top travellers.
What do you believe it would take for the coach of your favourite Super Rugby team to introduce a squad rotation system? Share your views by posting your comments below…..