AFTER a storming start to the season that saw them occupy second place on the log after winning four of their five opening games, the Pumas’ Currie Cup campaign derailed spectacularly and they finished a lowly sixth.
This season had promised so much for the men from Nelspruit and they put in some fine early-season performances that were rewarded with impressive wins over the Sharks and Cheetahs.
They had also turned their Mbombela home ground into a fortress that not many teams expected to return from with points. But halfway into the season it all seemed to go wrong, and the team ended up losing all of their final five fixtures.
It is something coach Jimmy Stonehouse believes was partly caused by distractions off the pitch. “We had a problem from the unions and the agents suddenly looking at the players, and as a result the players lost focus,” said Stonehouse.
“That was one of the main things we had to deal with, getting the players motivated again to play. You’ve got these opportunities from bigger unions coming your way. How does a guy from a small union handle that? It’s a big jump in salary.
“So that was one of the reasons that contributed to our poor second half of the season.”
Being able to lure players away from small unions is not the only advantage big unions hold. Their bigger squad sizes were another area Stonehouse felt his team was unable to match, and that contributed to their loss of form.
The Pumas coach said: “Coming into the second half of the season you’re also playing against teams that can do squad rotations — which you can’t because you don’t have the same quality in depth in your squad. That, too, played a big role.”
Throw in the fact that the Pumas were in their first season back in the premier division after spending two years in the first division, and a playoff place may well have been considered a bonus for them.
“Experience is one of the biggest things and that’s why I said in the beginning of the season that you need three seasons to adapt from the first division to the premier division,” said Stonehouse. “It’s sad that we didn’t make the playoffs but you must remember we lacked experience. We missed out on bonus points when we should have got them, and that is down to experience.”
But the coach was happy his team would be back in the competition next year. And though they did not achieve their preseason goal of a fifth-placed finish, they achieved the more important objective of avoiding playing in the qualifying competition for next year’s Currie Cup.
“It’s very important to have avoided the qualifying matches because, as in any union, those matches put your aim somewhere else. We don’t need to worry about that and can now work on preparing for the Vodacom Cup,” Stonehouse said.