Super Rugby: Sharks heading for heavy weather
With three games left in the Super Rugby season, the only certainty is that an Australian team will not win the trophy.
The Brumbies, coached by Jake White and leading the Australian conference until the final week, imploded with the silverware on the horizon. Another Australian, golfer Adam Scott, knows exactly how that feels after Sunday's British Open.
The fast-finishing Reds relegated the Brumbies to also-ran status, but they were no match for the Sharks in Brisbane. Why should that have been? The Sharks had to travel across the time zones without their injured star, Patrick Lambie, and a lock crisis persuaded coach John Plumtree to play Willem Alberts out of position in the second row.
The Reds will argue that their chances were dealt a critical blow by the one-match ban incurred by their Wallaby flyhalf, Quade Cooper. In Cooper's place, Ben Lucas did not last beyond the first quarter and Reds coach Ewan McKenzie had to make a tactical switch that he surely must have had misgivings about.
Moving Will Genia from the side of the scrum to flyhalf removed the urgency around the breakdowns and there was no concomitant increase of threat out wide. Indeed, Genia's smooth and powerful pass worked against the Reds, with the Sharks defence moving up flatter and flatter and the eventual intercept try from Charl McLeod manifesting as a direct consequence.
Certain to lose
And so the Sharks have earned another shot at the title with a semifinal against the Stormers in Cape Town. It is a game they might well win, but in the greater scheme of things they are almost certain to lose. That is because a Sharks win would send them back across the time zones, either to Hamilton or Christchurch.
It is an inhuman schedule and one that is not entirely mitigated by the Sharks coming sixth on the log, rather than first as was the case with the Stormers. Last year the Crusaders had to endure something similar, although not quite as taxing, when they beat the Sharks in Nelson followed by the Stormers in Cape Town, before finally running out of gas against the Reds in Brisbane.
The question is why any team should have to travel so far in the play-offs. Would it not be more humane to rotate the games between South Africa, New Zealand and Australia on an annual basis?
It would certainly be fairer and far more likely to produce an upset or two, which is precisely why it will never happen. The franchises bought into the concept of a six-team finale and if it is insanely loaded towards the teams that finish first and second on the log, so be it.
As it happens, there is only one team left in the competition – the Crusaders – that has won it before, which adds an extra frisson to the next fortnight. It is hard to bet against the seven-time champions at any time, but their opponents, the Chiefs, have played some inspired rugby this year. If Sonny Bill Williams is at his irrepressible best, they should reach the final for the second time. At that point they will meet a South African team. If it is the Stormers, the final will be in Cape Town. If the Sharks prevail the final will be in Hamilton.
It is a little too easy to say that if the Sharks play the way they did against the Reds they will beat the Stormers. There is the small matter of a second intercontinental trip to be considered. The Stormers, by contrast, have had a week to recuperate, allowing coach Allister Coetzee to cast a wider selection net than he has been accustomed to.
The return to fitness of Eben Etzebeth and Andries Bekker gives the Stormers a major advantage at line-out time. On the other hand, the all-Springbok front and back rows of the Sharks are superior in most respects to anything the Stormers can throw at them.
The respective back divisions largely cancel each other out with quality players throughout. The form of Frenchman Freddie Michalak has galvanised the Sharks in the injury- enforced absence of Lambie, but he is not a better player than his opposite number, Peter Grant. Indeed, Grant has been the best South African flyhalf on display this year and his chance must surely come again at the highest level.
The fabulous form of Springbok wings JP Pietersen and Bryan Habana will light up the contest if, and it is a big if, the ball ever gets to them. The Stormers have built their fortress around the best defence in the competition and they will simply not permit the crazy offloads and skip passes that the Sharks got away with against the Reds.
To the neutral observer a Sharks win might appear preferable, for it is likely to come with verve and pace.
A Stormers win will be more reliant on control at the breakdowns and the metronomic kicking form of Grant. The Stormers have lost both of their previous semifinals at Newlands, but this should be a case of third time lucky.