DURBAN – ON January 31, 2020 the Sharks beat the Bulls in Durban in the opening round of Super Rugby … One year later almost to the day, the weirdest season in rugby history ended with the Sharks losing to the Bulls in Pretoria in the second half of extra time of the lightning-affected Currie Cup final.
Surely this was a rugby season like no other …. We had Super Rugby with the Aussies, Kiwis and Argies; no rugby for five months; Super Rugby Unlocked; the 2020 Currie Cup being won in 2021; matches called off because of the lightning of summer thunderstorms on the highveld; Covid outbreaks causing cancellation of games; empty stadiums with canned applause…
And this is just the broad framework of a season where the players and managements felt like they were being flicked around in a pinball machine.
In one especially chaotic week, the Sharks had 22 positive Covid results (the week that their game against Western Province at Newlands was called off).
Rassie Erasmus was spot on when he praised the country’s rugby professionals for their fortitude in completing a Comrades Marathon of a season where often it looked like the Currie Cup was an exhausted runner who was going to collapse before the finish line as the official fired that dreaded shot to end the day.
Sharks coach Sean Everitt described it thus: “For long periods, it seemed surreal; most of the time it was incredibly stressful; younger players grew up; all of us toughened up mentally, and above all, there was a growing understanding each week of just how serious this pandemic is.
“Hyron Andrews (the Sharks lock) lost his mother and his grandmother in the space of four days. We are a very tight family and that really hit home,” said Everitt, who also suffered from Covid and for two weeks had to deliver coaching instructions from his bedroom.
“It is very challenging to prepare a team when you are losing guys for two weeks at a time (for isolation) and you can only train on a Wednesday because that's when the Covid results come in and you then know who you have…”
While rugby fans are ultimately grateful that rugby was played, the ghost town stadiums devoid of atmosphere were deflating, not just for viewers but mostly for the players.
“It was bizarre,” Everitt said. “We have learned just how vital fans at the stadiums are. “You are used to the vibe before the game, the pre-kickoff entertainment… we realise now how much the buzz adds to your motivation.
“It is eerie when you are giving instructions to the guys on pitch side and you are hearing echoes of your voice around the empty stands.”
During the hard lockdown, the players faced the challenge of keeping fit. Equipment was distributed to them, and online Pilates classes were done regularly, but isolation was challenging for some of the younger players who stayed in bachelor pads or garden cottages.
A year ago, the season started spectacularly for the Sharks, who topped the Super Rugby table after eight rounds. Later, post lockdown, they never recaptured that irresistible form, but one thing that did not desert them was their dogged determination.
“We began 2020 by beating the Bulls, then we went on tour and each squad member played two games on a successful tour, and we continued winning on our return — we were in a great place,” Everitt recalls. “We were due to play the Chiefs in Durban when lockdown struck (late March) and we regretted that game not being played because they were a form team and that would have shown us where we were, then bang! Super Rugby is called off…”
Five months later, rugby resumed and the Sharks misfired through the local Unlocked competition.
“We were literally not the same team,” Everitt says. “During Super Rugby we had suffered no injuries. When rugby resumed, key players in Kerron van Vuuren (hooker), Lukhanyo Am (outside centre) and Thomas du Toit (tighthead prop) were immediately injured, plus we had lost key players during that transfer window that SA Rugby allowed during lockdown … and then Covid hit us hard.
“Makazole Mapimpi (Japan), Andre Esterhuizen (Harlequins) and Louis Schreuder (Newcastle Falcons) had been in excellent form, and Curwin Bosch was thriving having (scrumhalf) Louis and (centre) Andre on either side of him, while Sbu Nkosi and Aphelele Fassi were on fire.
“We had a game model that suited our personnel. We were getting 82 percent return on our contestable kicks and by playing a fetcher we could play nicely exciting rugby from turnover ball.”
The Sharks also lost the highly underrated blindside flank Tyler Paul to Japan, which hurt their lineout options going forward. They missed a tall, abrasive, typical No 7 flank.
“Circumstances forced us to test youngsters,” Everitt says. “Our average age in the final was 23 and a half and six players were under 21. Covid forced our hand, and the youngsters came through with flying colours.”
One example is Dylan Richardson, who started the season on the fringes but because of injury and Covid heavily hitting the Sharks’ loose forward stocks, Richardson, who had been standing in at hooker for injured Van Vuuren, was picked on the flank and grew into one of the finds of the Currie Cup.
Likewise, when Hyron Andrews was on compassionate leave, JJ van der Mescht came in and grabbed his chance spectacularly, being one of the stars of the final.
Finally, Everitt is peeved at the criticism steered at Bosch after the final was so narrowly lost.
“This was Curwin’s first campaign as a senior, without Andre and Louis, and he grew immensely. People criticise him for kicking too much, but we play where the space is —if there is space behind then we play there. We play according to the opportunities presented to us.
“If it wasn’t for Curwin’s goal-kicking against WP in the semi, we wouldn't have been in the final; he also nailed high-pressure kicks for us to beat the Cheetahs and Griquas, and there were those immaculate cross kicks to (wings) Madosh Tambwe; Yaw Penxe and Werner Kok for matching-winning tries in various games.
“It is unfair to say Curwin has no BMT. The Bulls also missed kicks in the final, including the highly experienced Morne Steyn. Curwin is still just 23. He has learned that in rugby it is impossible to be the star of the show every single game He is maturing, and he has learned to deal with adversity.
“We all have … and at the end of this season the Sharks are overall in a much better position — in terms of understanding what we need to work on, the personnel we need to hang on to and where we need to recruit —than we were at the start all that time ago.”