July 28, 2014 Leave a comment
Just not good enough on the day is how it appeared in the weekend’s Super Rugby semi-final defeat for the Sharks against the Crusaders in Christchurch, but is there more to it than meets the eye for a a Durban team than has been in more semi-finals and finals than any other South African team in 18 years of Super Rugby, yet has never clinched the crown?
The Bulls have three titles, the Sharks have none, and the Stormers are South Africa’s perennial underachievers.
The Lions and the Cheetahs have only threatened in the play-offs when they were combined as the Cats and for two seasons at the turn of the millennium, former All Blacks coach Laurie Mains welded them into a formidable bunch.
Otherwise it has been mainly been the Sharks that have spearheaded the South African challenge since 1996, but they have never quite had the game to go all the way and win a title.
This year was no different. They led the competition until the three-quarter mark and had the South African Conference wrapped up not long past the half way mark. For so long it seemed that the Sharks would have a home semi-final and then possibly a home final.
But the overall log saw them finish in third place, just one solitary point behind the Crusaders, the team who thus had the advantage of a week off from the quarter-finals and the luxury of not having to travel 12 000 kilometres for a semi.
The Sharks failed spectacularly in the semi-finals, as we painfully saw at the weekend, dismally failing to impose their game plan on a Crusaders team that until the Sharks beat them at home in May, had not lost in 50 games against touring South African teams since Northern Transvaal won there in 1996.
They were not going to lose to the Sharks again in a hurry. Not in the same season.
But for that solitary point separating the Sharks and the Crusaders on the overall log, it could have been so different. Just one point between hosting a semi-final and having to travel overseas for one, having first had to negotiate a quarter-final.
The Crusaders were mid table at the half way mark, the Sharks were the leaders, and they came home from tour with three wins from four games, including that famous win over the Crusaders on their home turf.
And then as the bell sounded for the final lap of the circuit, the Sharks’ legs became wobbly at times while the Crusaders found a second wind and would ultimaty pip the Sharks at the post for that invaluable home semi-final.
Just one point, as we have said. The detractors of the way the Sharks play rugby would say that could have come the way of a try scoring bonus point, something the Sharks miraculously achieved in their first two games in the hectic humidity of February, had they been more adventurous.
They did not manage it again as they settled in to their strategy of kick-first, suffocate and then muscle over the line, and it has to be said that this strategy became firmer policy once flyhalf general Patrick Lambie was injured early in the campaign.
Just one point between hosting the Crusaders and travelling to their sub-zero ground …
We could say that the invaluable points were lost when the Sharks underestimated the Highlanders on April 25 in the eve of their tour overseas, and limply lost to a fired-up Highlanders team that almost repeated the feat in the quarter-finals.
Some would say that it was the loss in Bloemfontein on July 5 when the 15th-placed Cheetahs beat the log leading Sharks, but in truth the Sharks were not that bad that day, even if some players were rotated, and the truth is that was the day a Cheetahs team that had been playing way below their potential chose to play their “cup final”.
So where did it ultimately go wrong for the Sharks in a 2014 campaign that should have ended with home play-off games and a final at Kings Park. It probably came down to the final 20 seconds of the post-tour match against the Stormers, when a jaded Sharks team seemed to have done enough to edge home against a rejuvenated Cape team.
A poorly directed kick from the Sharks scrumhalf on the field at the time, Charl McLeod, gave the Stormers a chance for a counter attack, and from the unlikeliest sources, fullback Jaco Taute, came a fluke drop goal that won his team the game and it quite possibly sunk the Sharks’ hopes of the sweet comforts of home. Such are the margins in Super Rugby … and the difference between Kings Park and Christchurch.
By Mike Greenaway