Well beaten, but champs in waiting
The predictability of the outcome of the Vodacom Super Rugby final leaves little to add in the wash-up to a season that, because of the travelling the one team had to do in order to get to the decider, ended up in an anti-climax.
Only the real one-eyed of the die-hard Sharks fans would have believed their team could overcome the odds stacked against them, and in the end pre-match predictions of a winning margin of around 20 points for the Chiefs proved conservative. They won by 31, and it was a wet weather game!
It was a deserved win by the Chiefs and they are fitting champions. Their consistency enabled them to finish in the top two, and it was on that basis that they hosted the final. So there can be no complaints from the Sharks, who finished sixth and were made to pay for their inconsistent start to the year.
And that is what the Sharks coaches would have been acknowledging to themselves as they headed back with the team from New Zealand and mulled over what has been and what they need to do in order to give their team a better chance next year.
In fairness, the Sharks coaches always knew they were up against it. They weren’t that confident of winning in Cape Town a week earlier, let alone travelling across the Indian Ocean and then the Tasman Sea to play the Chiefs. John Plumtree said often enough during the regular season that winning the South African conference was crucial, and the events of the last three weeks would not have changed that view.
The Chiefs may now argue the point, but the Sharks were the form team in the competition in the last two months. It was just that the chances of winning it for the first time were always slender, or nearly non-existent, once they had entered the Finals Series the hard way and it became apparent they would have to make two return trips to Australasia.
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In retrospect, it may well be possible for a wildcard entry into the Finals Series to win it, and the Sharks may well consider that the other route they could have taken, the one they would have taken had they finished fifth and gone to Christchurch for their first playoff game, might have been the easier one to the trophy.
They would have been rank underdogs against the Crusaders, but they would have played them after just one flight east to west, and the Stormers showed against the Highlanders on Easter Saturday that it can be done. A victory there would have meant them staying in Australasia to play either the Chiefs or the Reds, and then they would either have stayed there or gone to Cape Town for the final, where travel would not have been nearly as big a factor as it was on Saturday.
But it’s easy to be clever in hindsight, and the Sharks admitted that when they did their calculations they felt they had an easier chance against the Reds in the first playoff game than had they played the Crusaders.
Given the record the Crusaders boast in Christchurch against South African teams, it’s hard to argue.
What the Sharks need to do now is start thinking about how they can ensure that next year they make their first positive start to the league season in quite a while, and thus put themselves in with a realistic chance of success. In other words, they need to carry the momentum of this season into the next, something they were unable to do after the 2008 and 2010 Currie Cup finals.
There are several theories on why they didn’t continue early last year with the attacking game that saw them to domestic success at the end of 2010, and the one that pinpoints injuries is no more credible than the one that focuses on the fitness levels that the Sharks need to attain to play that way. In the early season Durban humidity it’s hard to play like you are the All Blacks or Toulouse.
What is undeniable though is that the Sharks, with Frans Steyn available to them for the whole season next year, are equipped to win Super Rugby for the first time if the squad can apply the same focus over several months that they have over the past two.
They were significantly better than both the Stormers and the Bulls when they played them during the past two months, and they appear to be on a different level when it comes to skill level. Hopefully the hurt that Bismarck du Plessis displayed on his face when he was interviewed after the final will be remembered and internalised and used as motivation for next year.
If it is, and the Sharks get it right, they will be champions 12 months from now and their fourth defeat in a final would not have been in vain.
RESULT OF FINAL
Chiefs 37 Sharks 6