Sharks win would surpass everything
The debilitating effects of travel fatigue will see them start as overwhelming underdogs, but it is the odds stacked against them that will enable the 15 players who take the field for the Sharks in Saturday’s Super Rugby final in Hamilton to do motivated by the knowledge they are on the cusp of their union’s greatest achievement ever.
The 1990 win by Natal in the Currie Cup final against Northern Transvaal, the upset win by Wynand Claassen’s team against Northerns 10 years before that, the draws in 1924 and 1960 against the British Lions and the All Blacks respectively, the stupendous win over Transvaal from being 23-4 down with eight minutes to go in Johannesburg in 1973 -- all of those legendary parts of Natal/Sharks rugby history will pale into insignificance if Keegan Daniel’s team somehow beat the Chiefs.
That will be the motivation for them to put in one last lift of effort in an attempt to defy the accepted view that teams that have flown from west to east across the time-zones from South Africa to New Zealand are at a serious disadvantage. They’ve already gone part of the way towards exposing the myth, if that is what it is, for few would have expected them to go to Brisbane and Cape Town in successive weeks and win big playoff games.
But a trip to Australia and back is small fry compared to a trip to Australia and back, and then a trip back to Australia followed by the hop across the Tasman Sea to the north island of New Zealand. If it was just the one journey that the Sharks had to take then their chances would be a lot more realistic.
The Stormers, in thrashing the Highlanders in faraway New Zealand just a week after a tough game against the Bulls in Cape Town, showed the way on the Easter weekend. And the Crusaders did something similar when a week later they flew from Pretoria home to Christchurch to beat what was then a very powerful Stormers team that had yet to suffer the injuries that eventually forced them to play a hooker at No 8.
The Sharks are two thirds of the way towards making good on what was described as an impossible dream, but even though they started as underdogs last week, their superiority in the tight five, which is so important in playoff games, always gave them a chance of winning.
No-one who was at Newlands will argue against the view that the Sharks were out on their feet in the last quarter, and from the vantage point of the press box, it was clear that the Stormers wasted many gilt-edge opportunities of drawing the game in the last minutes. The Chiefs are a better attacking team than the Stormers, they are also a much superior scrumming unit.
The vulnerabilities that the Sharks were able to exploit last week and to some extent the week before aren’t there in a Chiefs team that in the semifinal against Crusaders underlined its right to be recognised as the top New Zealand team in this year’s competition.
Will the Chiefs waste opportunities like the Reds did when they were all over the Sharks in the second half? It’s unlikely, not when they have the magical gifts of the immensely powerful Sonny Bill Williams orchestrating the attacks from inside centre. And this on a day when the Sharks are without their two best No 12s -- let’s not forget that in addition to Tim Whitehead being ruled out with injury, Frans Steyn was also unavailable -- and have a youngster playing out of position.
Not that the Chiefs should take Paul Jordaan’s appearance at inside centre as read on the team sheet. The Sharks announced last week that Meyer Bosman would be starting, and he didn’t. So who says this week he was announced not to be starting, and he does. Don’t bet against that, or anything else for that matter for the Sharks have been known for their canny selection ruses in big games ever since Ian McIntosh neglected to inform anyone he was shifting lock Steve Atherton to flank in place of, ironically, John Plumtree, in the aforementioned 1990 Currie Cup final.
That October day nearly 22 years ago was an epoch making day in the history of Natal rugby, and Plumtree may well remind his team of the insurmountable odds he and his teammates (he was on the bench) faced in a match where everyone thought there would be only one winner.
Of course, the Sharks of that era didn’t have to worry about jetlag, and in those days the big fuss was the so-called altitude bogey. Altitude has largely been negated as a factor in modern times, and teams like the Sharks and Western Province/Stormers have been known to finish games in Pretoria and Johannesburg stronger than their opponents.
So maybe it was all in the mind, and maybe, just maybe, the Sharks can prove on Saturday that jetlag is in the mind too. The South African rowing fours team proved on Thursday that almost anything is possible in sport, and maybe the Sharks can defy all expectation. But you shouldn’t bet on it, and of the different scenarios possible in Hamilton, I would say a 20-point defeat is more likely than any kind of victory.
Chiefs: Robbie Robinson, Tim Nanai-Williams, Andrew Horrell, Sonny Bill Williams, Asaeli Tikoirotuma, Aaron Cruden, Tawera Kerr-Barlow, Kane Thompson, Tanerau Latimer, Liam Messam, Brodie Retallick, Craig Clarke (capt), Ben Tameifuna, Mahonri Schwalger, Sona Taumalolo.
Replacements: Hika Elliot, Ben Afeaki, Michael Fitzgerald, Sam Cane, Brendon Leonard, Jackson Willison, Leila Masaga.
Sharks: Pat Lambie, Louis Ludik, JP Pietersen, Paul Jordaan, Lwazi Mvovo, Frederic Michalak, Charl McLeod, Ryan Kankowski, Marcell Coetzee, Keegan Daniel (capt), Anton Bresler, Willem Alberts, Jannie du Plessis, Bismarck du Plessis, Tendai Mtawarira.
Replacements: Craig Burden, Wiehahn Herbst, Steven Sykes, Jean Deysel, Jacques Botes, Meyer Bosman, Riaan Viljoen.
Referee: Steve Walsh.
Kick-off: 9:35am (CAT, SA, GMT+2).
Prediction: Chiefs to win with something to spare.