The Sharks have had a successful Super Rugby season despite not finishing in the top two on the combined log, writes MARK KEOHANE in Business Day.
Jake White, after the history-making win against the Crusaders in New Zealand, said his Sharks were on the high road to a first ever Super Rugby title. Then they lost to the Stormers in Durban with the last kick of the game and they were forced onto the low road. A further defeat against the Cheetahs in Bloemfontein put them on the dirt road. White’s description; not mine.
The route, despite an emphatic 34-10 win against the Stormers in Cape Town in their final league game, hasn’t changed much. It is still more dirt than neatly paved highway. Still this should not detract from a season in which the Sharks have been true to their pedigree. The disappointment in them not finishing in the top two must not overshadow the achievement in the league season.
The roses are too easily handed out to underachievers in South African rugby. One-off victories are given underserving status and consistency is seldom applauded. South Africa, as a rugby public, is demanding but the expectation isn’t balanced with perspective.
The Sharks were brutal in taking apart the Stormers at Newlands. This was the same Stormers team that in recent weeks kept the Cheetahs and Bulls scoreless in 160 minutes of rugby. Yet the common headline was that the Sharks had failed to finish in the top two and failed to get a home semi-final. It was about failure when it should have been about success.
The reality is that finishing second or third offers the same luxury of a home play-off and that there was always going to be a travel demand on the Sharks when it came to a final.
The Sharks and Waratahs were the only consistent teams in the top three throughout the 16-match league stage. And I’d venture the Waratahs got it easier because of the weakness of the Reds and Rebels, who they got to play twice each respectively. South Africa’s two worst finishers, the Cheetahs and Lions, were decidedly better teams.
The nature of the expanded Super Rugby competition means it is never a fair contest. Certain teams are favoured in the schedule and the month-long break for the June internationals is often a disadvantage to those franchises who produce the bulk of the national team.
The Crusaders, a year ago, suffered the most. The team were nearing a peak at the end of May, but when the All Blacks returned from their 3-0 series win against France, many players were either battling with injury, fatigue or an ability to recapture the form of May. The Sharks were a carbon copy this season and it is why they were always going to be one league win off the Tahs in the league standings.
Jake White’s men deserve more applause than angst. It was a similar case when White coached the Brumbies a year ago and the quality of White’s coaching is that with two very different squads he achieved almost identical results.
The Brumbies ended third last year and got two more league points than the third-placed Sharks this season. The Brumbies won 10 of their 16 games and the Sharks won 11 of their 16 games.
White’s Brumbies excelled on the road a year ago, winning in New Zealand and winning two out of three in South Africa, including an away semi-final against the Bulls in Pretoria. White’s Sharks won in Australia and twice in New Zealand.
In both campaigns there was an unexpected defeat at home, which proved telling between placing second or third. So for purpose of reflection, congratulations are in order for the Sharks.
They easily won the South African conference and are without doubt the best team in South Africa. They won five of the eight games against their countrymen and were within a score of winning all eight.
They played effective rugby and only once in 16 matches – against the Highlanders – did they fail to get a league point. Four of the five defeats were seven points or less.
They get the chance to right the wrong of the Highlanders when they host the Kiwis in Durban on Saturday and then they will have to complete an historic South African double to win the tournament by beating the Crusaders in Christchurch and the Tahs in Sydney.
That’s how the play-off dirt road looks this morning, but the dreamers and optimists among us are keeping an eye on the Brumbies beating the Chiefs at home and then beating the Tahs in Sydney. If that happens and the Sharks beat the Highlanders and the Crusaders, then the final would be in Durban. And that would represent the dream final for White and the golden highway for the Sharks.
For now it’s a dirt road, but not because of a campaign that in any way is a reflection of the play-off road the Sharks must negotiate.
Photo: Shaun Roy/Gallo Images