The Stormers scored 10 tries and effectively won the Neo Africa Tri-Series with their two wins … the Sharks lost twice and touched down just once in the process.
Rob Houwing writes for Sport24 that it may be the silly season, but that has still got to be considered a fairly worrying state of affairs among fans and personnel of the big Durban franchise as the Vodacom Super 14 looms very large.
The Sharks, rightly considered one of South Africa’s “big two” in the competition for several years now, may well be in danger of surrendering that status after the Stormers certainly fired a shot across their bows in winning by a comfortable 29-14 at Newlands on Friday.
It followed the Durban team’s 26-0 humbling at the hands of the Force a few days earlier.
Of course not an awful lot ought to be read into the pre-season landscape, especially as their coach John Plumtree did rather more “fiddling” and experimenting with combinations in the tournament than the Cape side.
But alarm signals are, nevertheless, very far from absent.
The Sharks have reinforced their ranks fairly modestly this year, and that despite receding depressingly in last year’s competition to sixth after a rampant start and installation by many neutral pundits as favourites.
They also experienced a mortal blow recently in the injury-enforced termination of Argentina flyhalf Juan Martin Hernandez’s short career at the Absa Stadium, after there had been great hope he would provide some — much-needed, frankly — “X-factor” to their back-line in his second South African season.
Sometimes you get the feeling, too, that the versatility offered by international stalwarts like John Smit and Ruan Pienaar provides more confusion and uncertainty than it does clarity to the cause.
Once again, in the clash with the Stormers, skipper Smit looked uncomfortable and unconvincing at tighthead prop, where he has bulked up for that specific role, yet it was clear as the living daylight that their best scrummaging solidity comes when he is back at No 2, between Beast Mtawarira and Jannie du Plessis.
That leaves the ever-nagging question: what becomes of Bismarck du Plessis?
Similarly, if Pienaar harboured aspirations of returning to his favourite scrumhalf slot, the Sharks may now desperately require his talismanic presence (when fit again, mind) in the No 10 channel.
They may be lucky, you see, if either of Monty Dumond or Steve Meyer proves anything better than an honest workhorse at flyhalf – and they are not exactly bursting with creative options in the string-pulling No 12 position.
Plumtree was putting a brave face on things at the after-match press conference on Friday.
“We improved … the physicality of our game was right up there, which was great. We’ve just got to put a little bit of gloss on it, and there are players coming back into our plans (after injury) to improve options.
“Our intensity was good, especially in the first half. In the second half the referee (Craig Joubert) killed it. Either we changed our habits or he changed his; I’m not sure which.
“There was a lot of good counter-rucking in the first half; in the second we weren’t allowed to do it. I hope the game doesn’t turn into a soft one of tiddlywinks … it’s pretty boring to watch 35 penalties dished out.
“It will probably take referees some time to settle down but I think we’ve possibly seen three different behaviours from three referees (in this tournament).”
Asked by Sport24 whether momentum was now needed very quickly, considering that the Sharks have only two home Super 14 games – against the Chiefs and Cheetahs – before embarking on a tough, five-match overseas leg, Plumtree replied: “Well, that’s the idea, yeah.
Everyone wants to get off to a good start.
“We’ve got work to do. We started pretty late; the Springboks came quite late into our preparation, we’ve had some injuries and disruption at No 10 as well, so it hasn’t been perfect preparation for this Tri-Series.
“There was a difference in selection between the two teams, don’t forget. Allister (Coetzee) pretty much stuck with his strongest outfit right the way through – I gave (a broader spread of) players a chance to impress. That’s important in trial week.
“How we gel as a 15 and 22 for the Chiefs game is going to be really important over the next couple of weeks. That’ll be our challenge.
“There’s good competition in the pack … my side’s going to be really firing and really physical by the time we hit the Chiefs. If nobody talks about us this year that’s fine, because we were talked up last year and didn’t do anything.
“I thought we played like a netball team against the Force. We turned out like a rugby team (against the Stormers); that’s what I was happier about.”
Plumtree did confess that the Stormers look in fairly robust fettle.
“They’re a good side, for sure. Plenty of speed, and they’ve got some power. They’re pretty all-round this year. They’ve come off what was a successful Currie Cup for them, and they’ve built on that.
“They’ve got continuity, in their coaching too, and they have some world-class players right through the team … they must have cost a lot (laughing) but good on them. I hope they go well.”
He will obviously want his Sharks to fare better, but some observers may be quietly tweaking their views …