While the Sharks showed their championship credentials at Newlands, they may be brought low in the coming weeks by a gruelling travel schedule, writes JON CARDINELLI.
‘Copy and paste,’ said Sharks director of rugby Jake White in the aftermath of the 34-10 demolition of the Stormers. White stressed the importance of this result just a week out from the play-offs. It was crucial that the Sharks won, and it was even more important that they played the type of rugby that would give them a chance of prevailing in the coming knockout matches. They had obtained some momentum, and, according to White, would ‘copy and paste’ the game plan when they played the Highlanders in Durban.
There have been some shock results in recent weeks, results that have influenced the final standings on the overall Super Rugby log. What should come as no surprise, however, is that the six teams who have qualified, namely the Waratahs, Crusaders, Sharks, Brumbies, Chiefs, and Highlanders, all have the ability to play a pragmatic game.
The Highlanders were poor in Christchurch this past weekend, but White said he expected them to be a different prospect when they run out at Kings Park on Saturday. White felt that the Highlanders may opt for Lima Sopoaga at flyhalf ahead of Hayden Parker, a selection that pointed to a more territory-based approach. Indeed, of the two players, Sopoaga has the better line-kicking game.
The Crusaders were so clinical in Christchurch this past weekend. Some fans and critics will look at the stats of points and tries scored, and come to the conclusion that the Cantabrians are an expansive team.
However, that win against the Highlanders was built on a powerful set piece and breakdown performance, not to mention an excellent tactical display. Three of the four tries were scored from the lineout maul. They may be capable of some outrageous attacking plays and have some of the best finishers and decision-makers in the competition, but the Crusaders are essentially a team that does the basics very well.
So too the Waratahs. They have an impressive pack that allows them to pressure that of the opposition. In Israel Folau, they not only have a man with speed, but physical presence. He’s a safe bet under the high ball, and his size and power so often allows him to break tackles in the wider channels. Like the Crusaders, the Wararahs can play some thrilling attacking rugby, but they are equally at home playing the percentages.
It would be great to see these six teams going head-to-head in a final series, that is if the final series wasn’t so weighted towards those finishing in the top two.
The Waratahs and Crusaders have secured home semi-finals, as well as a week’s break. They will have a distinct advantage over their opponents in the penultimate round, not only because they are playing on their home patch, but because their opponents will be forced to travel.
Here I am referring specifically to the winner of the play-off in Durban. It’s a tough ask for the Sharks to fly to Christchurch for a semi-final, and then possibly to Sydney for a final. And spare a thought for the Highlanders should they progress. The Highlanders will fly to Durban this week, and may have to travel to Christchurch the week thereafter for another bruising encounter.
It was something White alluded to after the Sharks’ win against the Stormers in Cape Town. He remained confident that wins against the Crusaders and Waratahs were possible, and that confidence was down to the fact that the Sharks beat the Waratahs in Durban and the Crusaders in Christchurch earlier this year. And yet, he did point out the flaw in the competition structure that makes it so tough for teams finishing third, fourth, fifth, and sixth to win the title.
‘Perhaps we need to scrap the play-offs,’ he said, the inferred meaning being that the travel demands were too significant a handicap. Indeed, while there have been examples of a team travelling abroad to win a play-off since the inception of the 15-team format in 2011 (think the Sharks beating the Reds and Stormers in 2012, and White’s own Brumbies beating the Bulls in 2013), the winner has always come from those finishing in the top two.
The Sharks will face a tough route to the title from here, and that is their own fault in the sense they lost two games they should have won in the past three rounds. That cost them top spot on the overall log. But White has a point when he says the format is flawed and the play-offs are too predictable.
There may be an upset or two in the qualifying and semi-final rounds, but the team that has home advantage in the final will have a clear advantage over another side like the Sharks who have had to travel extensively in the preceding weeks.
The odds are against the Sharks lifting the title from here, just as they were against the Brumbies beating the Chiefs in Hamilton in 2013, and against the Sharks beating the Chiefs at the same venue in 2012. It’s been some time since Super Rugby has served up anything but a farce in the decider, and unfortunately for those who believe in a fair contest, the situation isn’t going to change any time soon.
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