Sharks are special when they want it
As the Sharks lay exhausted on the Newlands turf after their epic Vodacom Super Rugby semifinal win over the Stormers, it was impossible not to think of the words of opposing captain Jean de Villiers earlier in the week.
“What I will say is if the Sharks go all the way to winning the title with the amount of travelling that they have to do then they will be the best team in the history of the competition,” said De Villiers.
Well, on the evidence of the past few weeks, in fact back to the end of April, they are a special team, and they certainly have the capabilities to be among the finest teams that have played Super Rugby. It does beg the question though, and it should be a frustrating one for a management team that is faced with the reality that for all the good form shown recently, success in the Grand Final in Hamilton remains highly unlikely – why don’t they show the commitment displayed at Newlands all season?
It is true that injuries stymied the Sharks early on, but it didn’t explain the lack of consistency that kept them operating under the radar for so long and which prevented them from picking up the momentum in the competition that they needed to challenge the Stormers for the South African conference title. There is a curious anomaly to the Sharks -- it’s as if they need to be in a must win situation in order for them to really pull together and be prepared to die for the cause.
It may not be as simplistic as the way a Sharks fan put it before the Newlands game. According to him, everything depended on how much the Sharks Springboks wanted to win. But there may be a little bit in that if you look back at the Sharks’ performances since suffering an unexpected defeat to the Cheetahs in the 2009 Currie Cup semifinal.
After that game there were insinuations that some of the Sharks Boks, who had just returned to the side from a Tri-Nations and British and Irish Lions series triumph, weren’t pulling finger. The whispering behind the scenes was carried over into the following season, when the Sharks started poorly before what the Sharks coaches described as “some hard talking” during the overseas tour drew the team together and they won seven out of their last eight Super 14 games.
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It wasn’t enough to get them into the playoffs, just as their more recent renaissance probably won’t be enough for them to win the competition. As romantic as the notion of a win in Hamilton is, the impact of a double trip across the Indian Ocean should give them at best a 20% chance of doing it.
They started as underdogs against the Stormers, but after just going to Australia and back, they always had a chance in the semifinal. It is the thought that they can go back again, just a week after flying home to South Africa from Brisbane, and win a final that makes any hope the Sharks have of clinching the trophy for the first time so much pie in the sky.
The Chiefs have everything on their side, including an extra day to prepare -- their semifinal against Crusaders was on a Friday -- and would have noted how many chances the Stormers butchered in the last minutes at Newlands, when the Sharks were so clearly out on their feet.
The Sharks deserve tremendous credit for their win in Cape Town, and by using sheer force of will to play themselves back into the Stormers’ half to secure the Frederic Michalak drop-goal that made it so much harder for the hosts in those final minutes, they showed their ticker. And they also showed what might have been had they been as wholly committed more consistently.
Considering the way the Sharks have played since their league defeat to the Chiefs in Durban at the end of April, it wouldn’t have been a race had the Sharks topped the log and it was the Chiefs coming to South Africa. Or even if the Sharks had just topped their conference, and were now just making their first playoff trip to Australasia, for the Stormers showed with their win over the Highlanders in Dunedin a week after they beat the Bulls in Cape Town that such a result is possible.
But the Sharks’ strange tendency to drift in and out of focus, something that was most recently put on show when they were thrashed by the Lions at Coca-Cola Park, cost them the chance to be in the pound seats.
The Chiefs must have been cock-a-hoop when they watched the Newlands game and saw how, once again, the Stormers conspired against themselves to allow them to stay in New Zealand rather than fly to South Africa. One of the factors that would have weighed against the Chiefs is the fact the two teams haven’t met this season, and the amount of travelling would have denied them proper time to do a full analysis of the Stormers’ play.
The Sharks at least have the notes they would have made before they played the Chiefs in Durban to fall back on as they spend the next few days at Coogee trying their level best to avoid the jetlag that was so obviously there in the last minutes in Cape Town but which the Stormers were unable to take advantage of.
The Chiefs were deserved winners over the Crusaders in the other semifinal this weekend and unless they lose confidence and form, the likes of Sonny Bill Williams are equipped do what the Stormers were unable to do by exploiting the Sharks’ defensive disorganisation when they are tired. After their big loss at Loftus in the 2009 final, the Chiefs wouldn’t have been relishing the prospect of having to travel to play the decider.
Chiefs 20 Crusaders 17
DHL Stormers 19 Sharks 26