Sharks in Super Rugby's deep end

We are now in uncharted territory. This is the first season of Super Rugby to include a six-team play-off system. It means that the Reds and the Stormers, who finished first and second on the log, have a week off, while the teams that finished third to sixth battle it out for the honour of travelling to Brisbane and Cape Town.

Now is a good time, then, to assess the strengths and weaknesses of the new system.
Several critics have pointed out that the Reds and the Waratahs were at an advantage in playing twice against their conference colleagues, the Brumbies, the Force and the Rebels. Given that those sides finished 12th, 13th and last on the log, there is some substance to the gripe.

The new system entrenches home and away local derbies and has the knock-on effect of providing each side with a fixture list missing two of the 14 other sides in the competition. The Reds, besides playing the above-named sides twice, avoided the dangerous Sharks and the Highlanders this year.

Before we whinge about unfair fixture lists, however, it would be wise to factor in the experience of the Crusaders in 2011. First of all, the seven-time champions had an earthquake to contend with. The loss of life in the Christchurch tragedy included people close to the Crusaders players and they chose not to play their fixture against the Hurricanes in Wellington that week.

The match was officially declared a draw, which earned them two points to go with the one they earned for a narrow defeat against the Blues in Auckland in the opening week. The AMI Stadium in Christchurch was declared unsound as a result of the quake and from that moment on the Crusaders became Gypsies, playing “home” games in Nelson, Timaru and even Twickenham along the way.

On top of all that, the Crusaders drew the shortest straw of all in this year’s fixture list. That’s because the teams they didn’t play were the Lions and the Rebels, respectively 14th and 15th on the log at the conclusion of last week’s round 18.

With all this getting in the way, the Crusaders still finished third, just five points behind the Reds. A more benign list of fixtures and they would surely have been putting their feet up this week, instead of preparing to face the Sharks in Nelson.

There can be few greater contrasts than the one the Sharks are about to encounter. Last week in Pretoria, at high altitude and in front of a capacity crowd of 50 000, was the kind of occasion the competition organisers had hoped for when they chose to double the number of local derbies. This week the Sharks flew out of South Africa on Tuesday, arrived in New Zealand on Thursday to play on Saturday evening in front of 17 000 people at sea level in Trafalgar Park.

The Crusaders had other options. They were offered Dunedin and Wellington as venues for the game but chose to reward their loyal fans by playing in Nelson, on the northern tip of the South Island. To put that into geographical perspective, Nelson is about as far from Christchurch as Bloemfontein is from Johannesburg. The difference is that the coastal road is a good
deal less accelerator-friendly than the N1.

It is hard, then, to underestimate the task at hand for the Sharks. Beating a complacent Crusaders team is hard enough, but beating one that has endured what this one has will need something special. No South African team has ever won a semifinal in New Zealand and the Crusaders have never lost at home in a knockout game.

Do the Sharks have what it takes? Before last Saturday the answer would have been a resounding no, but now it’s a definite maybe. Such was the intensity of the performance against the Bulls that it would be reckless to dismiss their chances. Coach John Plumtree came up with a plan for the Loftus encounter and he will have another for Trafalgar Park.

It must involve shutting down the midfield threat of Dan Carter and Sonny Bill Williams, who has just returned from injury. The Cheetahs showed the other teams how to deal with Williams in Bloemfontein two months ago and that video will have been pored over by the backroom boys in Durban this week.

But the key to this Sharks team is the way their forwards gel as a unit. There is no doubt that the return of Ryan Kankowski to the base of the scrum and the consequent role adjustment of Willem Alberts to that of impact player has had a galvanising effect.

Kankowski’s pace keeps the opposition back row in place a split second longer to police the threat, which means more time and space for scrumhalf Charl McLeod. That gives extra breathing space for the whole back line and eases the pressure on the decision-makers at 10 and 12.

The Crusaders will be hot favourites to win and play their semifinal against the Stormers in Cape Town next week. But this Sharks team has a definite chance and an away win would send them to Brisbane for a semi against the Reds.

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