Tired Sharks are in untested Super Rugby waters

The Super Rugby final in Hamilton should be one way traffic. In the space of two weeks the Sharks have flown to Brisbane to beat the Reds, flown back to South Africa to beat the Stormers in Cape Town, then turned around to fly back to Sydney. They parked at Coogee beach for three days and then flew to New Zealand on Thursday. It's the sort of schedule that would have businessmen falling asleep at the conference desk, but the Sharks are expected to run at full tilt for 80 minutes and put their bodies on the line.

To beat the Chiefs they need to remember a few things. At the beginning of this year Ernie Els was finished as a golfer at the highest level. His putter wouldn't behave and at 42 he was ready to book a seat in the departure lounge where players go to prepare for the Senior Tour. Then he won his fourth major title at Royal Lytham St Annes.

Chad le Clos finished fifth in the 400m individual medley at the London Olympics. The talk then was of experience and the fact that the bright young talent was actually only going to peak four years hence in Brazil. With three metres to go in the final of the 200m butterfly Le Clos was losing to the great Michael Phelps. But Phelps misjudged his final stroke and Le Clos overtook his idol with one mighty heave of the arms. How significant was the win? Well, as one media chap tweeted, no one will ever mispronounce his name again.

On Thursday the second Test between England and South Africa began at Headingley. The Proteas were underdogs going into the first Test at the Oval due to the protracted period they had spent away from the five-day format. They opted to eschew an extra couple of warm-up games in favour of a team-building visit to the Swiss Alps. Then Hashim Amla became the first South African to hit a Test triple century and Dale Steyn underlined his hard-earned status as the world's best bowler. The Proteas are now 1-0 up and within clutching distance of becoming the top ranked team in world cricket.

Extremely annoying
The point of all the above is that players care nothing for history. Sometimes this can be extremely annoying, bordering on disrespect for the deeds of former greats. But at crucial moments in a career, perhaps the only way to achieve the impossible is to assume that all your predecessors were rubbish.

Le Clos became a competitive swimmer because of Phelps, but that did not stop him from beating the American legend when the moment arrived.

The Sharks have already done the unlikely by beating the Reds and Stormers; now they have a chance to do the impossible by beating the Chiefs in Hamilton. Remarkably, they have reached the final game of the season with only one first-choice player unavailable. Tim Whitehead broke a bone in his hand against the Stormers and did not travel with the squad.

Pat Lambie has been carrying an injury since the second Test against England, but he was available for selection on Thursday. Bismarck du Plessis was flattened by a dreadnought of a tackle from Eben Etzebeth last Saturday, but he picked himself up and finished the game.

Du Plessis was not at his best against England, but he is playing unstoppable rugby right now.

Ryan Kankowski was sidelined by injury for much of the season. Feeling that his Test future was in doubt he signed a six-month contract to play in Japan this year, persuading the Sharks to release him from Currie Cup duty. Then he got called up by new Springbok coach Heyneke Meyer and now he is playing the best rugby of his career.

Lacking in ambition
The significant aspect of last week's defeat of the Stormers in Cape Town was the manner in which it was achieved.

The Sharks threw everything at the log leaders for an hour and built up a lead just big enough to withstand the fatigue factor in the final quarter. By contrast, the Stormers seemed crucially lacking in ambition. Having played pragmatic, defence-based rugby all season, they could not change their strategy when the situation demanded it in a knockout game.

There have been times this season when the Sharks looked anything but title contenders.

In the final game before the June international window they were comfortably beaten by the hapless Lions. Perhaps crucially, they lost 18-12 to the Chiefs at Kings Park in April.

And then there was the result that got away, when they surrendered a huge lead to lose to the Waratahs in Sydney with the last move of the match.

But here they are at the sharp end of the competition, having won eight of their last nine games and in irresistible form.

If the unthinkable happens and they win, it will mean that the team finishing sixth in log play is the champion side of 2012. That may seem blatantly unfair, but in a golden period for South African sport it seems more and more like there is simply no stopping an idea whose time has come.



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