John Plumtree wants Sharks to bite when chips are down in Challenge Cup final

Makazole Mapimpi will have to play more of a leadership role in the Sharks backline tonight in the absence of the injured Lukhanyo Am. Photo: BackpagePix

Makazole Mapimpi will have to play more of a leadership role in the Sharks backline tonight in the absence of the injured Lukhanyo Am. Photo: BackpagePix

Published May 24, 2024


A sight that should settle the nerves of Sharks fans at 9pm (SA time) tomorrow will be mighty Eben Etzebeth leading the Durban site out onto the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium pitch for the Challenge Cup final against Gloucester.

Etzebeth was the only Springbok to make the World Rugby Dream Team after the last World Cup, and has been the SA Rugby Player of the Year for two years.

Coach John Plumtree knows that by giving the living legend the captain’s armband, the 14 other Sharks will follow him into battle.

Gloucester captain Lewis Ludlow identified Etzebeth as the player who sparked the Sharks’ comeback from the dead in the semi-final against Clermont.

Etzebeth takes over the captaincy from the injured Lukhanyo Am, and he and Gerbrandt Grobler are in a second row behind World Cup winners Vincent Koch, Bongi Mbonambi and Ox Nche.

Plumtree said from London yesterday that as the week has worn on, he has handed the baton to Etzebeth and his lieutenants.

“The experienced guys have been in this position many times and on the biggest stages,” the Sharks coach said.

“The first part of the week was about technical stuff, but for the last few days, it has been time for the seniors to shine.

“I am a big believer in the leaders taking over at the back end of the week – my voice gets quieter and theirs gets louder. That is what you want, because it is the players who have to deliver on the pitch.”

Plumtree said the plan has been to keep matters as simple as possible.

“You don’t want to clutter players with too much info before big games,” he said.

“You identify a few areas where you want to put the opposition under pressure and discuss where they will target you, but you want to get the plan in place as early as possible.

“The players must then (go) into their own space, and make sure they bring the intensity required.”

In that regard, Plumtree said that the Springboks have been immense, with Makazole Mapimpi and Grant Williams also World Cup winners in the backline.

“They have been very important. In fact, they have been great all week,” the Kiwi said.

“They have had a hand in the strategy and the tactics we have devised for this game, and are all very excited about the challenge.

“They do bring calmness with their experience of these sorts of occasions, but they also know the right time to amp up the preparation mentally.

“The World Cup winners have been there and done that over the years, but we will need all 23 players to be on the same page if we want to win.”

It has taken the whole season for the Sharks to discover their passion and for the players to connect, and this was embodied in the last 20 minutes of the Clermont game.

“We showed in that game that we don’t give up when the chips are down, and that’s what I want from the boys,” Plumtree said.

“I want them to be a team that never gives up. We haven’t had the best season, but we targeted this competition quite a while ago.

“There is a lot of expectation from the fans, as well as the consortium of owners who are all ambitious and want us to do well.

— The Sharks (@SharksRugby) May 22, 2024

“We don’t feel under pressure, but we do want to do it for them (the owners) and for our fans.

“Do we feel we are representing South Africa? Well, we are the only local team playing this weekend, so we do feel we are representing the country.

“But at the same time, we are not allowing that to become a pressure that might drag the guys down. I don’t want to add layers of pressure on these boys.

“But 15 000 turn up most weekends at our home ground and many other people around the world support us. There has not been much to smile about, but hopefully from tomorrow night, that will change.”

Sharks Team

15 Aphelele Fassi 14 Werner Kok 13 Ethan Hooker 12 Francois Venter 11 Makazole Mapimpi 10 Siya Masuku 9 Grant Williams 8 Phepsi Buthelezi 7 Vincent Tshituka 6 James Venter 5 Gerbrandt Grobler 4 Eben Etzebeth (captain) 3 Vincent Koch 2 Bongi Mbonambi 1 Ox Nche.

Bench: 16 Fez Mbatha 17 Ntuthuko Mchunu 18 Hanro Jacobs 19 Lappies Labuschagne 20 Dylan Richardson 21 Cameron Wright 22 Curwin Bosch 23 Eduan Keyter.