Can excitement overcome jet-lag?
The Sharks coaches will know in their hearts that the odds are overwhelmingly against them in Saturday’s Super Rugby final, but they are clinging to the hope that the excitement of being in the decider will help them overcome the debilitating effects of travel fatigue.
They know that they have already overcome great odds and the predictions of many critics to get as far as they have, with Saturday’s final against the Chiefs in Hamilton coming just two weeks after they were in Brisbane for a quarterfinal, with a trip home to South Africa to play the Stormers wedged in between. Jetlag has been a factor in both the games they have played in the finals series, it’s just been that their opponents, the Reds and the Stormers, haven’t been able to capitalise on it.
Against the Reds they looked out on their feet at stages of the second half, where they conceded an overwhelming tackle count, and would probably have lost had it not been for the fortuitous Charl McLeod intercept try early in the second half, as well as a debatable decision by the TMO to deny the Reds later on.
And from the vantage point of the Newlands press box it was obvious the Stormers botched some golden opportunities to force the semifinal into extra time with some poor decision-making.
But what has undeniably been present for the Sharks has been guts and big match ticker, and a sheer will to win. It was that determination that motivated the Sharks to force their way back into Stormers territory for one last attack that netted a second Freddie Michalak drop-goal in the dying minutes in Cape Town, as well as the counter-attack that took them from their own line to metres from the Reds when they were under the kosh in Brisbane.
Can they do it again now that they have had to make a second trip from west to east in the space of a few weeks? The Chiefs, with Sonny Bill Williams and company chomping at the bit for opportunities at the back to make good the chances that the Stormers wasted, and boasting a more physical forward pack than the other two sides, start as strong favourites.
But Sharks coach John Plumtree is hoping that the knowledge that they are so close to achieving what they haven’t achieved before, and the excitement that comes with that, will somehow overcome nature on this occasion. While many have labeled the Stormers chokers since the semifinal, the tag might even be more fitting when attached to the Sharks, for they have lost three finals, and the 2007 decider in Durban, when the lost off the last move of the game, was probably the biggest choke of all time.
Plumtree was sitting in the coaching box with head coach Dick Muir that day, and he will recall how he and Muir hugged each other after Albert van der Berg’s try shortly before the final whistle and congratulated one another for winning what was then the Super 14. They’ve done it the hard way this year, and the fact that they had to come from sixth position on the log this time would make up for the 2007 disappointment.
“We’re all very excited for Saturday and the prospect of creating history. Moving into unchartered territory motivates everyone from the players to the coaching staff,” said Plumtree.
“None of the players in this group knows what it is like to hold aloft the Super Rugby trophy, and that motivates us too.”
The Sharks have some players in great form at the moment. JP Pietersen has been razor-sharp since starring for the Springboks during the June internationals against England, and has said that the break, with the bye coming for the Sharks at the start of the last spurt of league matches, had given the side to both refresh and reflect on what needed to be done.
“After losing the match to the Lions we resolved that winning the trophy was still in our hands and we’ve all stepped up and faced the challenge head on. We have another massive challenge this week and we’re all very excited about it,” said Pietersen.
But the Chiefs haven’t won the trophy either, and they have been waiting for the Sharks since Friday. With the Sharks spending the day after the semifinal in the air, and travelling away from time, and due to do more travelling away from time when they fly to Hamilton from their current base in Sydney on Thursday, the Chiefs have a massive advantage.