The Sharks ensnared by play-off net

Jake White’s post-match comments in Cape Town last Saturday were to the point. “What is the point of play-offs if we are just going to accept that the final finishing order is how the competition will end? If we just accept it is impossible then the play-offs are a waste of time and we can save a lot of time and money, plus the players’ bodies for international rugby, by just scrapping them.”

Clearly the board of Sanzar (South Africa New Zealand Australia Rugby) feels differently, because the planned expansion of Super Rugby in 2016 will feature an eight-team play-off series. On Wednesday, Sanzar announced that the 18th and final franchise will be based in the Far East, with the board now officially mulling expressions of interest from Singapore and Japan.

Few believe that the current play-off structure is fair, but from 2016 it will be even further from ideal. As it stands now, there is a huge benefit to finishing in the top two on the log; a guaranteed home semifinal preceded by a week off. The teams finishing from third to sixth fight for the right to join the top two in the semis.

The system proposed for an 18-team competition does away with the week off, but posits a scenario where the team that has topped the log over 17 rounds can be eliminated in the quarterfinals by the team that finished eighth. One bad day and four months of effort goes up in smoke. Upsets are, of course, the essence of sport, for as White says: “If we are going to get a situation where it is always the teams that finish first and second on the log that end up playing in the final then we might as well scrap the play-off games.”

It would be interesting to know what White’s views would have been had his team finished second this year, rather than third. Forced into a corner, the Sharks have to accentuate the positive. They have to remember that one of the top two has lost at the semifinal stage for the last three years in a row. Unfortunately, on each occasion it has been a South African side that has imploded. The Stormers lost at Newlands in 2011 and 2012 and the Bulls went down to White’s Brumbies at Loftus last year.

Nod to the future
In many ways, then, this week’s fixture at Kings Park is a nod to the future of the competition. It features a home side that dominated the tournament for four months and then lost its mojo. By contrast the away side, the Highlanders, were mediocre for much of the season until emerging from the pack in the final month and a half.

One of the highlights of the Highlanders’ season was a comfortable win in Durban in late April. It was the final match for the Sharks before departing for Australasia and they played like they already had one foot on the plane. So the visitors know they can win and no one would be terribly surprised if the Sharks’ season came to an abrupt end on Saturday evening.

However, there are reasons to believe that will not be the case. For one thing, White is an expert in the curious ways of knockout rugby. Not without a few tremors along the way, he guided the Springboks to the World Cup in 2007 by espousing a conservative game plan based upon the kick and chase. With a few tweaks the same plan sank the Stormers last week and should account for the Highlanders.

The question then is whether such limited tactics will be enough to beard the Crusaders in their Christchurch den. They did it in May, of course, winning 30-25 in a manner far removed from the tentative displays of the last six weeks.

There may be a sense of familiarity for the Sharks; having reached the final from sixth position two seasons ago. They travelled to Brisbane to beat the Reds and came back across the time zones to upset the Stormers in Cape Town, before meeting their Waterloo against the Chiefs in the final.

This time around things look less onerous. Assuming the Sharks beat the Highlanders, they will fly via Sydney to Christchurch. Assuming they beat the Crusaders they will probably fly back to Sydney to contest the final against the Waratahs. If the Australian franchise loses, however, the Sharks will catch a connecting flight home and be favourites to win the tournament. If only life were as simple as that.

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