Indomitable spirit is Sharks' Chief hurdle
If the Sharks are going to win the Super Rugby title in 2014, they will have to get past the Chiefs. That much is clear from the past two weeks that the defending champions have spent in South Africa. In successive matches, the Hamilton-based franchise has secured a draw from apparently impossible positions.
Against the Bulls, they scored 19 points in the last 12 minutes to finish 34-34.
Against the Cheetahs last week, they did it again, coming back from 34-10 down at half-time and scoring a try under the posts after the hooter had gone to end the game 43-43. In both matches, it was to be expected that the Chiefs would fade in the final quarter as the effects of altitude took a physical toll. Instead, they got stronger.
This is clearly no ordinary side, as evinced by the fact that their coach, Dave Rennie, was in no mood to celebrate the six log points earned in the republic. He preferred to take the long view and regret the fact that his team had not registered a win in three weeks. It should be remembered that they lost to the Force in Perth before coming to South Africa.
Rennie sets high standards, which might explain why they have won the title for the past two seasons. It is little known in this country that the Chiefs were unable to train at Waikato Stadium in 2012, the year they first won the Super Rugby title. The Waikato Rugby Union owed the Hamilton city council, who owned the ground, close to NZ$1.5-million. With no assets to pay the debt, the council chose to lock them out.
Technically, Waikato and the Chiefs are two different organisations, but in practice they are as close to being one entity as the Bulls Super Rugby franchise and the Blue Bulls Rugby Union are. So, the council took its anger at Waikato out on the Chiefs, and locked them out of the stadium in 2012. After hurried negotiations, they were allowed back in to play five matches, but were absolutely not allowed to train there.
Desperate times require desperate measures, and the Chiefs chose to engage the community. Each day, one local school would offer its facilities to the franchise. The players would meet at a central point and ride their bikes to that day's designated school.
Hamilton is relatively flat, but even so it is possible to draw the conclusion that the extraordinary mental and physical fitness shown by the Chiefs in the past fortnight, together with an entirely palpable team spirit, all have their roots in those trying times.
Any team that is going to beat the Chiefs to the title is going to need similar depths to draw on. This week the Sharks will have to emerge from their bye rather better than the Lions did last week in order to maintain their challenge.
If they needed inspiration, however, they could look closer to home than Hamilton - to Potchefstroom, in fact.
The Varsity Cup celebrated the end of its seventh season with a final worthy of Super Rugby. The North-West University sports facility in Potch is celebrating its 10th year in 2014. The Fanie du Toit Rugby Stadium was packed to the rafters, and the whole town was preparing to celebrate when Francois Robbertse's try for Pukke made the score 33-15 with 10 minutes to go. What followed distilled the essence of why it is that we watch sport in the first place.
The Ikey Tigers from the University of Cape Town play in the blue and white hoops of the Stormers. Perhaps they could teach the Super Rugby franchise a few things about try scoring, for they scored six in the game, three when the result was apparently settled. The forwards drove over for the first, flyhalf Dean Grant sidestepped across for the second, and the third should have a stadium named after it.
Pukke were camped on the Ikey 22, leading 33-31 with time up on the clock. The ball came back from a ruck and flyhalf Johnny Welthagen, wishing to finish the game with a flourish, chose to drop at goal instead of simply kicking the ball dead and ending the game. His attempted drop was charged down and Ikeys seized the moment, sending the ball through a dozen pairs of hands before releasing Nathan Nel to score under the posts.
It was a try worthy of a trophy, reminiscent of the famous one scored by Gareth Edwards for the Barbarians against the All Blacks in 1973.
More importantly, perhaps, it put the smiles back on a few faces following a weekend of Super Rugby without a single win for a South African team, something that hasn't happened since 2008. Pertinently, perhaps, that was the season that the Varsity Cup made its debut.
The moral of the story is that there is not that much wrong with the game in this country if the Varsity Cup can produce a match as compelling as Monday's final. A handful of the Pukke and Ikey boys will end up playing Super Rugby, but the vast majority will dip beneath the radar. Only in years to come, when the subject of the 2014 final comes up, will they admit to the highlight of their playing careers.