The Sharks cannot blame the Super Rugby format or fatigue for the situation they find themselves in, writes SIMON BORCHARDT.
Sharks director of rugby Jake White believes Sanzar should consider scrapping the play-offs as the current system gives the home side too great an advantage. If only the top two teams on the combined log can go on to win the title, he says, then we should just give the trophy to whoever finishes first at the end of the regular season.
The Crusaders, this Saturday, will have a big advantage. They were able to rest last weekend and will face a Sharks team that had to play a qualifier (effectively a quarter-final) against the Highlanders before flying 13,000km to Christchurch.
The Sharks, though, could have avoided such a difficult schedule by finishing in the top two on the combined log and ensuring a home semi-final. If they had earned more than just two bonus points for scoring four tries (the Crusaders got four and the Waratahs nine) or won just one of the three games they were expected to win but lost – against the Highlanders and Stormers in Durban and the Cheetahs in Bloemfontein – they would have finished above the Crusaders in second place. They would have been able to take a much-needed break last weekend and host a team in the semi-finals that had flown halfway across the world to get there. And I doubt very much that White would have been complaining about the tournament format then.
The Sharks topped the combined log for most of the season and should really have finished there. They lost convincingly to the Highlanders at home, so you can regard that game as a bad day at the office, which every team has at some stage. But the Sharks led 19-18 against the Stormers at Kings Park with time almost up. All they had to do was run down the clock and boot the ball into the stands to secure the four log points, but Charl McLeod opted to kick downfield and give the Stormers a chance to counter-attack. They did and Jaco Taute ended up slotting a match-winning drop goal. The Sharks should also have beaten the Cheetahs – who were last on the combined log at the time – in Bloemfontein, but they produced another below-par performance and the introduction of their big guns off the bench came too late.
White will say that he was forced to rest players, including his all-Bok front row, for that match at Free State Stadium, because they had played for the Springboks in June and were tired. But White wouldn't have had to do that at such a crucial stage of the season had he rotated his players more cleverly earlier on, by resting one or two at a time. Instead he selected his best players whenever he could, even against inferior opposition, and then expected Heyneke Meyer not to field them in every Bok match.
White also blamed the June internationals for the Sharks' losing momentum, as they contributed 11 players to the Bok squad. But when you consider that the Waratahs also had 11 players on Test duty, and they were able to convincingly win their three matches after the June break, then White's argument falls flat.
If the Sharks' Super Rugby campaign does end in Christchurch – and I hope it doesn't – it won't be because of the tournament format or fatigue, it will be because they lost regular-season matches that they should have won and because key players weren't rotated during the season to ensure they were fresh and raring to go for the play-offs.
In other words, the Sharks will have no one to blame but themselves.
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