Sharks don’t deserve damnation

The Sharks shouldn't be criticised after being beaten by a better team in Christchurch, writes MARK KEOHANE in Business Day

The vitriol, insults, personal abuse and crassness directed at the Sharks on social media forums must be the greatest motivator for the players to aim for fifth place next season.

What always amazes me is the surprise among the South African rugby public when a South African team takes a beating in an away Super Rugby semi-final in New Zealand. It surprises me because in the history of the tournament no South African team has ever won a semi-final in New Zealand.

The Crusaders don’t lose to a team at home twice in a season in Super Rugby. The Sharks were heroic in beating the Crusaders in Christchurch earlier in the tournament. They did it with 14 men and even played 10 minutes with 13 men. It was a magnificent result. Nothing should detract from the win because it ended a 50-match winning sequence for the Crusaders against South African teams in New Zealand.

The semi-final was always going to favour the hosts. I understand the disappointment in the manner of defeat, but it would have been a major upset and a near rugby miracle had the Sharks somehow left Christchurch with a second successive victory against the Crusaders, again given that in 20 starts they’d only ever won three times against New Zealand’s champion team.

The Crusaders also featured Kieran Read and Dan Carter. They weren’t there earlier in the year. Richie McCaw’s presence was also more influential; as it always is once the international season has started.

The Sharks simply were not good enough. There has been criticism of their game plan, most notably from former Bok coach and SuperSport analyst Nick Mallett. Each to their own, but I don’t share Mallett’s view that the manner of the Sharks defeat is a warning light for the Springboks.

The South African Super Rugby challenge this season was weak and unacceptable, but that won’t translate into a Springbok challenge that will be inferior in the Rugby Championship.

The Springboks play differently to the Sharks. The Springboks play with greater enterprise and balance and coach Heyneke Meyer has the luxury of picking from an entire country and not just one region.

The Sharks enjoyed a good season. This was documented when they finished third, just one log point behind the Crusaders. They easily won the South African conference and then won their home play-off match against the Highlanders.

Making the final would have made it a very good campaign. Winning the competition would have allowed for the use of far more gushing descriptive. But they didn’t win it because they were not good enough to win away from home in a play-off match.

Getting beaten in an away semi-final should not devalue the effort. The Sharks, to win this competition, had to play at home in a semi-final or final.

They had the opportunity to fashion this type of scenario when winning three of their four matches in Australia and New Zealand respectively. But they stumbled at home against the Stormers and away against the Cheetahs and the home defeat, in the last minute against the Stormers in Durban, ultimately took them from the high road to the dirt road – and it was a dirt road that proved too difficult to negotiate.

I don’t believe the Sharks' game plan was the wrong way to go. The Crusaders, as they have done eight times out of 10 when playing the Sharks, initially physically stood their ground in the gainline collisions and at the set piece and ultimately dominated these areas. Give the Kiwis the credit for negating the physical threat of some big and imposing South African prime beef.

The Sharks players, coaches and support staff don’t deserve the damnation being dealt. A better team hammered them. This was no implosion or choke. They came second by some distance in a two horse race in Christchurch.

There were good things to take from their season, as there were moments in all the other South African franchises respective campaigns.

Collectively, there is a lot that is right with the South African game, and when translated into a national group it makes for exciting rugby and a squad capable of consistently being up there with the best.

There has been so much purple prose written about the Cheetahs' ability to attack, the Lions' seven tournament wins and the apparent resurgence in the Cape. The Bulls have even enjoyed better press and social media justice.

The reality is the Sharks were the best of the South African challenge, but Christchurch at the weekend showed they were not the best in the competition.

That’s disappointing, but it certainly is not a crime. Neither is it cause for national pessimism.

Super Rugby is not Test rugby.

Photo: Fiona Goodall/AFP Photo