Predicting the Super 15 finalists would be simple were it not for the calibre of the teams competing.
In a sane world, next week’s Super Rugby final would be between the Waratahs and the Crusaders in Sydney. Pick a selection of stories from around the world this week, however, and you will quickly realise that we do not live in a sane world. The bottom line is that neither of this week’s semifinals is easy to call.
The Brumbies are good enough to beat the Waratahs and the Sharks have already beaten the Crusaders in Christchurch this year, so it would be foolish to bet against them doing it again.
Much water has flowed under the bridge since then. The Crusaders found their mojo and finished the competition way more competitively than they began it in February. Furthermore, they are able to call on the talents of Dan Carter and Kieran Read, both legendary All Blacks, who were both unavailable on that infamous day in May when the Sharks won 30-25.
It could be argued that the Sharks are also stronger, however, since Pat Lambie made his comeback from injury off the bench in last week’s defeat of the Highlanders in Durban. But other injuries might cancel out the plus marks brought by Lambie, as neither Tendai “Beast” Mtawarira nor Anton Bresler was able to board the plane with the team on Sunday.
Mtawarira is at a crossroads in his career, just over a year before the 2015 World Cup. Unquestioned at both provincial and national level for the past five seasons, the former Zimbabwean is beginning to spend worrying amounts of time on the physio’s couch. The latest problem is a neck injury and that is not good news for a prop forward.
But the good news for the Sharks is that his replacement has exceptional talent.
Thomas du Toit was part of the tight five unit that destroyed the Highlanders pack last week. It was such a comprehensive display that the visitors were forced to run the ball far earlier than they would have wished. Ironically, that fact kept them in the game, and they scored some remarkable tries from broken play.
The loss of Bresler is less problematic, because new Springbok Stephan Lewies steps up after being too sore to play against the Highlanders. The franchise will have to do without Bresler for the Currie Cup, anyway, as the Namibian-born lock is among a host of Sharks players heading overseas at the conclusion of the competition.
In no particular order, leaving are Jean Deysel, Keegan Daniel, Louis Ludik, Bresler, Frans Steyn, JP Pietersen and Charl McLeod. The rumour mill suggested that Fred Zeilinga was moving to the Cheetahs but the Sharks management team persuaded the gifted young flyhalf to stay.
In fact, it is at this time of the year that the provinces like to boast about their reserves of talent and the number of young superstars who have been persuaded to sign on the dotted line.
Craven Week ended last Saturday and the big winners are said to be the Lions, who have apparently signed up 50 of the best schoolboys in the country.
Last year it was the Bulls, but there are troubled times ahead for the blue juggernaut. Part of the trouble stems from an ineffective development programme, with the union forced to raid the Western Cape for players of colour. A third of the Bulls Craven Week squad members this year have their roots in the Boland and some elite schools in Pretoria have ceased playing against establishments they accuse of being too liberal with their chequebooks.
As it happens, neither the Bulls nor the KwaZulu-Natal school sides set the world alight this year but at senior level they were the best South Africa had to offer. It was the same in 2007 when a late Bryan Habana try at Kings Park took the Super Rugby title to Pretoria for the first time. That proved to be one of only two occasions since 2001 that the team topping the log did not win the title.
The other occasion also involved the Sharks. It was in 2012 that they beat the table-topping Stormers in Cape Town to set up a final against the Chiefs in Hamilton.
Sharks coach Jake White knows what it is like to win a semifinal away from home. Last year his Brumbies side beat the Bulls in Pretoria before losing the final, also against the Chiefs. Can White do it again? For that matter, can the Brumbies? The Australian franchise has won in Sydney often enough to make it far from a formality for the Waratahs in the other semifinal. A win for the Brumbies coupled with a similar result for the Sharks would send the two teams to Durban for next week’s final.
Of course, it is extremely unlikely but on such vagaries are sporting contests founded. The Brumbies are capable of exploiting weaknesses in the Waratahs’ set pieces but, even so, it is hard to believe that the Sydneysiders will falter at this late stage of the contest. Far more believable is a Sharks win in Christchurch against a Crusaders team that might just freeze in the headlights.