Sharks should not be written off
If the Sharks are to beat the Chiefs in the Super Rugby final they will have to overcome an incredibly arduous travel schedule.
They won’t be the first team to have had to flit back and forth across the Indian Ocean in quick order, but to have to travel to Brisbane, back and down to Cape Town and then all the way across to Hamilton will put them at a major disadvantage.
The metabolism can only take so much upheaval, and I would like to repeat something I wrote last year, when the Crusaders, after all the travelling they’d already done, had to dash to Cape Town to beat the Stormers and then back to Brisbane for the final. It proved a bridge…or should that be a flight, too far.
Yes, the current system certainly rewards the teams more and more the higher they finish up the table, but surely home advantage is quite enough without having to exhaust the visiting team. In order to level the playing field just a little, should there not be a week off between the semis and the final so the visitors can get a decent time to recover and acclimatise from the long journey that will always be associated with one of the teams in an NZ-SA final?
Having said that I wouldn’t write the Sharks off. They are on a great run right now, and still have the momentum they brought into the playoffs. Their power game is outstanding.
I was able to watch both semifinals in our London Olympic studio, and they were both fantastic contests, worthy of this stage of the competition.
Both were highly intense and physical, but were decided by the finer detail…a missed chance here, a mistake there. The beaten teams both defended heroically, but the teams that attacked the best and the most won, and we have two worthy finalists.
I picked the Sharks, but not the Chiefs. I thought the Crusaders would edge it, just as they did when they met in Hamilton in the round robin, but they showed that when some of their big guns are not quite firing, they are still a good team, but not quite the formidable force of previous times.
The Chiefs will be sweating on the fitness of their skipper Craig Clarke. He doesn’t have the massive physical presencee of an Etzebeth, a Horwill or even a Romano, but he is an experienced campaigner, an excellent ball winner and a good leader.
The Sharks will fancy their chances at set piece too, where the Chiefs have been a bit hot and cold in recent rounds, and if they can get some forward momentum, and get the likes of Alberts, Bismark du Plessis and co smashing onto the ball, then they are in with a chance, particularly with Patrick Lambie back to guide the backline.
Tim Whitehead is a loss. I was really impressed by his performance against the Blues earlier in the season when I called the game at Eden Park. It is a key position, with the Chiefs inside back/midfield attack the best in the competition.
The odds favour the Chiefs simply because they are at home and haven’t done the travelling. The Sharks have a better pack, the Chiefs have the better backs, but it may come down to who has the most gas in the tank in the last 20.
Rest assured there will be a big crowd around the TVs in our London Games studio, although we will have to mind our manners because we have a new South African Head of Sport Production!!!
I note that Robbie Deans wants a five-week break in June next year so he can prepare his Wallabies properly for the test series against the Lions.
I completely understand what Deans wants here. It is the biggest tour of all, a huge challenge, and is vitally important for Australian rugby going forward, as well as for Deans's future as Wallaby coach.
But I don’t detect a lot of sympathy in the other Sanzar countries. The predominant feeling seems to be that there has already been quite enough bending and stretching to accommodate Australia's needs, most notably the expansion of the Super Ruby programme to over six months to fill the void in the Aussie season where there is no provincial championship.
Why should everyone else lie idle just because the Lions are touring Australia?
Robbie might just have to bite the bullet on this one.