The Lions’ heavy defeat to the Crusaders in the Super Rugby final indirectly added further perspective to the Sharks’ historic 2014 win in Christchurch, writes CRAIG LEWIS.
On Saturday, the Crusaders clinched a 21st consecutive victory in playoff games at home. Overall, it was the New Zealand team’s ninth Super Rugby title, and a stark reminder of just how virtually unbeatable they are at their Christchurch fortress.
Yet each time a South African side slips to an almost inevitable defeat in Canterbury country, the Sharks’ class of 2014 should take due cognisance of just what they achieved on a chilly evening in Christchurch four seasons ago.
As a reporter who had the privilege of covering the Sharks’ tour to Australasia that year, the remarkable nature of that victory remains as vivid as ever.
Before that clash, the Crusaders had not lost to a South African team in New Zealand since 2001, while the Sharks had never won in Christchurch before (although they drew 26-26 in 1997).
In the week leading up to the encounter, the Sharks based themselves at the picturesque Peppers Clearwater golf resort, and attempted to talk a good game.
‘We haven’t won here in nearly 20 years of Super Rugby, but the nice thing is that it’s eventually going to change, and that’s why people follow sport, because they want to be sitting in the stadium the day it happens,’ then Sharks coach Jake White commented somewhat prophetically.
The Sharks started the match well enough, with Frans Steyn creating a superb try for S’bu Sithole, but then came a moment of madness from Jean Deysel, who was spotted lashing out at a Crusaders player with a boot to the face.
Deysel was sent from the field, and the Sharks’ task went from unlikely to impossible. Yet what followed was an opportunistic try to Cobus Reinach, and another to Kyle Cooper late in the game, and when the final whistle sounded, the scoreboard read 30-25 in favour of the visitors.
The Sharks celebrated wildly, with monstrous forwards Willem Alberts and Jannie du Plessis embracing in a bear hug that epitomised the jubilation of a team that had achieved something resembling a sports miracle.
Moments after the final whistle, White received a text from John Smit, who was then CEO of the Sharks, to congratulate the side on an achievement he had never experienced as a player.
Later, as the two teams mingled in the change rooms, Steyn wandered out and took a seat overlooking the field. He admitted to being overawed by the occasion. Soon after, Bismarck du Plessis emerged and threw a chirp my way: ‘Ja, Craig, you wrote us off, but see what happened?’
And even later on, as the celebrations continued in the team room back at the Sharks’ Christchurch base, Jannie du Plessis was virtually at a loss for words as he attempted to describe how significant the victory had been.
All of these top Springboks were fully aware of just how rare it is to win in New Zealand – particularly Christchurch – and that it was something that they may never experience again as a player.
This past Saturday, the Lions received a taste of just how difficult it is to remain competitive against the Crusaders in Christchurch. Captain Warren Whiteley looked shattered after the final, but the result has to be put into perspective.
What the Sharks achieved in 2014 – with a one-man disadvantage – was a freak anomaly, and the players involved will forever be able to reflect on a career highlight that remains up there with the best.
And for the Lions, it’s worth remembering that there is no shame in coming up short in Christchurch. Instead, South African rugby as a whole needs to undertake some serious introspection over just how to replicate the rare ingredients for success that the Sharks found in 2014.
Photo: Marty Melville/AFP/Getty Images