Sharks are on a roll
Last week I made some guarded, veiled predictions about how I thought the Super Rugby playoffs might pan out.
I note a couple of you read between the lines, and got my drift. I now wish I’d been a bit less cautious, and then I could now write and say “I told ya so!”.
Because the weekend's qualifiers played out pretty much as I thought they would.
I was surprised to see so many people both in New Zealand and even in South Africa tipping the Reds to beat the Sharks. I was quite sure they would not. Two reasons, both borne out in the result.
Firstly, the Sharks are on a roll, a tear. They have momentum through their dynamic ball-carrying forwards, and I felt quite sure that if they got into gear and gained ascendancy up front, the Reds would not be able to live with them.
Secondly, the Reds are not that great a team. As well as they played last year, and as well as they were coached by Ewen McKenzie, that success last year, in the recesses of my tiny mind, will always have an asterisk beside it.
The Crusaders had to play them after almost four months of non-stop travelling, in Brisbane, straight off the back of a mad dash to Cape Town and back for a tough semifinal against the Stormers, and in the end it was a bridge too far.
The Reds have the best halfback in the world, now that Fourie du Preez has moved on, but even Will Genia can’t do it on his own. When James Horwill's season ended, so too did the Reds' serious hopes of back-to-back titles. He is a world-class lock and an outstanding leader, and against that Sharks pack they had no show without him.
The loss of Quade Cooper, a mercurial talent capable of the most extraordinarily good and bewilderingly bad things all in the same game, was another big blow, and so too was the withdrawal of Ben Lucas, but it was more than balanced out by the Sharks being unable to field Pat Lambie and Francois Steyn.
The difference was that the Reds' only option was to shuffle Genia out one, where he was far less dangerous, whereas the Sharks had French Freddie to get them round the Park. I’ve never been a huge fan of Michalak (especially since he gave an undetected forward pass to knock the All Blacks out of the 2007 World Cup!), but his experience and generalship have been invaluable. He’s not in the same class as Steyn or Lambie, but he’s done a solid job.
It is a tough ask to turn around and take on the Stormers in Cape Town, but I think they are more than capable. It would help if Lambie was back.
The Stormers are a formidable side. They have one of the competition's best forwards in Eben Etzebeth, and they have a brilliant, watertight defence – quite the best in Super Rugby.
The game is at Newlands, and the travel will have played merry hell with the Sharks' body clocks.
But I also wonder if the week off, for all its rejuvenating powers, can also rob a team of momentum, which is what the Sharks have right now.
If anything can unlock that Blue Wall defence it is the combination of the power running of Du Plessis, Alberts and co, and the super form of JP Pietersen.
Of course we are now guaranteed a New Zealand-South Africa final, because the winner of that game will play either the Chiefs or Crusaders in the decider. The Stormers have to win for that game to be in South Africa, if the Sharks win they will be back to New Zealand again.
And that’s the problem in this competition. It brings together the three highest-ranked nations in world rugby, but in terms of travel, we are half a world apart, and until someone invents a new system of transport, like the ability to send a team great distances via the internet, then it will continue to play too big a part in deciding this great tournament.
I think most people felt the travel factor would make an already tough job for the Bulls nigh impossible, when they met the Crusaders in Christchurch, and so it proved to be.
The Crusaders weren’t able to get into top gear, but they were never really threatened. They will probably have Kieran Read back for their trip to Hamilton this week, and if he is, I reckon they will be too strong.
The Crusaders' set piece is going well and they again showed their counter-rucking abilities against the Bulls. Even with Carter in the mix, the Chiefs probably have more talent in their backline, but as they always say, these games are won up front. The Bulls were disappointing. They looked a bit flat, kicked the ball away too much, and really got on the wrong side of Jaco Peyper.
Once that disappointment has eased, Bulls fans can still feel some satisfaction at their team's effort over the season as a whole, because when they lost Matfield, Bakkies, Du Preez, Danie Rossouw and others all at once, a lot of people thought they would not feature.
They have uncorked some potential new stars, especially Juandre Kruger. JJ Engelbrecht still has a few edges to knock off his game, but he is strong and runs good lines.
They have maybe got to rethink their game plan a bit for next year, try and keep ball in hand a bit more. It will either require a change in strategy or a change in personnel. Morne Steyn is an admirable man and has been a fabulous servant, instrumental in their success, but he lost a bit of his edge this season, with his goalkicking reduced to mere mortal proportions. When he plays so deep, he cannot ignite a backline the way a Carter or Lambie does when operating right on the gainline.
In conclusion, if I had to place a bet, it would be on a Sharks-Crusaders final, but we will see!
Footnote: I am off to London now for the Olympics. It’s a tough life but someone’s gotta do it! Rest assured I will be able to watch the semis and finals from our studios, so I will post next week from the UK. Tally ho!