Rugby: Q&A with Sharks coach John Plumtree

By Chris Rattue

The Super 14 is by no means over but New Zealander John Plumtree has the Sharks of Durban well placed to claim their first title.

Plumtree has built a solid if not spectacular coaching career which is set to break out of the shadows. He gained international notice in guiding Natal to the Currie Cup, and now has the Sharks at the top of the Super 14 after a series of away victories including at Waikato Stadium and Eden Park.

Plumtree is also close to joining the Springboks camp as a technical adviser and when it comes time to find the next All Blacks coach, his name will surely be in the frame.

The man whose team is asking all the questions in the Super 14 gives the Herald a few answers.

You are now the Super 14 favourites. Is that a good place to be, and do you worry about a touch of complacency setting in?

We're in a good position with four home games still to go but we have tough opponents coming up. We have a strong leadership group and we've worked so hard to get to this position ... we talk about it (not getting complacent) a lot. We have strong home support and the players love playing at home so I don't think it will be an issue. And we're still not where we want to be - we are really good in defence, the set piece and kicking but our attack game is struggling with continuity.

Your best form of attack has been defence?

We've made something like 1300 tackles this year, probably 400 more than the next team. We've tackled ourselves silly because we have played sides that are good at keeping the ball. This team impresses me all the time - they pick themselves up each week. I'm a bit concerned it has taken too much out of us but we adjust the preparation each week accordingly. We've got some key players who will hopefully be back over the next few weeks who should make a big difference to our attack. Our flanker Jean Deysel is a big part of our go forward, Ruan Pienaar is due back, and Waylon Murray hasn't played a minute for us yet.

Your best victory this year?

Against the Chiefs in Hamilton. We had been recovering from a long trip and to win first up in New Zealand was special. Our first game of the season against the Stormers was hyped up like a test match - we played in front of 52,000 at Cape Town and won.

Worst moment?

Definitely losing to the Reds in Brisbane. We have found that the third week on tour is often the hardest. We were planning for the weather to be good and got the tail end of a typhoon instead. The players got a bit bored, spent a lot of their time on their feet in shopping malls.

Who is the biggest Super 14 threat?

No one is setting it alight apart from the Chiefs. If they are there at the end, the Crusaders and Waratahs, but they are not as formidable as in the past, having lost players. No one really scares us but we respect those teams - we've lost quite a few games to them before.

What are the differences between New Zealand and South African rugby?

The crowds here are bigger, interest is bigger, everything about the country is much more positive about rugby. Being World Cup champions helps a fair bit. Sponsorships are right up there and people and companies want to be involved, which is a bit different to New Zealand at the moment. Rugby has less competition here - the game is easy to market in this country. In terms of playing the game, South African sides tend to kick a bit more, which gives opponents more opportunity to attack. Australian and New Zealand sides are better at hanging on to the ball. South Africa is a fantastic place to play and coach rugby. The players love performing in front of 45,000 crowds - to get that for every home game is certainly a big advantage.

What took you to South Africa in the first place?

I was born in Hawera and didn't want to get caught being a young rugby player in a small town for a long time. I thought if I got out of Hawera for a little while another door might open up. I'd always been amazed as a kid watching South African rugby - watching the Cavaliers tour (in 1986) and the 1981 Springboks. I got the chance to play for a club in Durban and then Ian McIntosh picked me for the Natal side. My wife Lara is South African ... we'd be happy living in New Zealand and my boys call themselves Kiwis. But South Africa is the place for me at the moment.

What was your best moment as a player?

Definitely winning the Currie Cup with Natal in our centenary year. Natal had never won it before - we beat the Bulls in the final. We won it three times again in the Ian McIntosh era.

Which coach influenced you the most?

Ian McIntosh - he was my Natal coach for a long time. His passion for the game rubbed off on me along with his love of Natal rugby. My dad Peter coached the Taranaki cricket side and he was someone who showed me what an enthusiasm for coaching and playing a sport was all about.

I read a profile on you which claimed that as a player, you would not have stood out as an obvious future top level coach - any thoughts on that?

Ian McIntosh must look at me and Dick Muir and scratch his head - we were two of the hardest cases in his team and if he could have crystal ball gazed and seen we would become Sharks coaches, he would have keeled over. I was one of those guys who trained hard and played hard. People change though and I've always loved being involved in a team. I really enjoyed studying the game and trying to find out what works and what doesn't, and working with younger players is fantastic.

Your career had an interesting interlude as former All Blacks coach John Mitchell's video analyst - good memories?

I learnt a lot under Mitch and also Robbie Deans for a short while but video analysis wasn't my thing. At that stage the computer analysis system was pretty raw and it was always getting bugs. The problems were driving me up the wall.

Do you have a coaching motto?

I like my teams to have plenty of enthusiasm for each performance. Consistency is big for me.

Who is the most talented player you have coached?

What a tough one ... ummmmm ... errrrr ... I don't know. You've got Ma'a Nonu, Christian Cullen, Ryan Kankowski, Ruan Pienaar - it's too hard to single out a person.

Who wins this year - Lions or Springboks?

South Africa will be too strong. They have an established side, are playing at home, and it will be massive for the 'Boks.

The Super 14 format?

I'm not sure how bringing in more teams will help. Rugby is all good in this country right now ... and the Super 14 doesn't need any changes.

The experimental laws - good or bad?

I'm pleased they are allowing the driving lineout again and have stopped the sack. It's a real art to come up with a driving lineout, and an art to stop one. It's great - it gives the forward coaches more to do. The breakdown law is a double-edged sword - free kicks are allowing sides to be more destructive whereas a return to penalties would mean teams know they pay more of a price. Then again, more penalties might slow the game down again.

- NZ Herald

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