Can Sharks heavies go the distance?

Six Sharks forwards have played over 1,000 minutes of rugby in 2014 and will be hard-pressed to outlast a fresher Crusaders pack, writes JON CARDINELLI.

In the 2012 Super Rugby play-offs, the Sharks smashed the Reds in Brisbane and then the Stormers in Cape Town. These two victories surprised a lot of people, especially the sports scientists who had stated that the Sharks would struggle physically.

And yet, the long, taxing season as well as the rigours of travel fatigue would catch up with them in the final. They journeyed back to Australasia for the much-vaunted decider, but it was never an even contest. It was patent even in the first half that the Sharks were out on their feet.

Two years on, and not much has changed. A Sharks side heads into the play-offs with plenty of belief, and with plenty of numbers on the odometer. 

The Sharks cannot win the next two games unless they outmuscle their opponents. Their game plan depends on set piece and breakdown success. If they don't produce the necessary intensity in those facets, they will lose the battles and the war.

Intensity is not only about desire. The Sharks will be motivated, as they could become the first team to win a play-off in Christchurch in Super Rugby history. However, their energy levels may have been sapped by the long journey to New Zealand, not to mention that bruising encounter with the Highlanders last week. The Sharks will be up against a Crusaders team that hasn't played since their final league clash on 12 July.

But there's another reason why the Sharks may struggle to bring the necessary intensity to this clash. The Bok players, particularly the forwards, have endured a lot of rugby over the past seven months.

If one is to combine the game time in Super Rugby with the workload during the June internationals, Willem Alberts, Bismarck du Plessis, Stephan Lewies, Marcell Coetzee, Beast Mtawarira and Jannie du Plessis have all played more than 1,000 minutes in 2014.  These are the men who will be expected to outmuscle an All Blacks-laden pack at the scrum, and knock the Crusaders back at the gainline.

Alberts, Bismarck du Plessis, Lewies and Coetzee have all played more than 1,000 minutes in Super Rugby alone. By comparison, their opponents have just one forward, namely Sam Whitelock, who has gone past the 1,000-minute mark for his franchise in 2014.

In a sense, the Crusaders are fortunate that Richie McCaw and Kieran Read have battled with injuries during the league stage. Those two key players, both of whom are accomplished All Blacks, will not be hampered by fatigue when they tackle the Sharks this weekend.

The Sharks also have several backs who have endured a heavy workload. Frans Steyn is ranked fifth in the competition for minutes played, 1,323 according to the Vodacom Rugby Stats App. Lwazi Mvovo is not far behind with 1,311, while JP Pietersen has been on the park for 970. It's worth noting that in addition to that, Pietersen played in every minute of the Boks' four matches in June (320).

Some will point the finger at Sharks director of rugby Jake White for poor player management. White will no doubt counter by highlighting the injuries sustained over the course of the season, and how this wrecked plans of greater rotation.

Others will bemoan the lack of a central contracting system in South Africa that would ensure the better management of players. As it is, Bok coach Heyneke Meyer will have an exhausted group to contend with when the squad gets together for the Rugby Championship next month.

Whatever the complaints and arguments, the odds against the Sharks this weekend are significant. It would make for a great story if they were to prevail, but given the facts and stats, we shouldn't expect too much.

Dr Ross Tucker: Sharks will start 10 points down against Crusaders

Photo: Sabelo Mngoma/BackpagePix

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Jon Cardinelli