Sharks must fly SA’s flag abroad

The Sharks represent South Africa’s final chance to land a psychological blow on the Australasians ahead of the Rugby Championship, writes JON CARDINELLI.

Zero from 12. Thus reads South African rugby’s overseas scorecard after yet another defeat in the Antipodes.

The Bulls, Cheetahs, and Stormers have all failed to register a victory in Australia or New Zealand, and this is cause for concern ahead of a crucial Test season for the Springboks.

In early February, Heyneke Meyer told this website that South African teams needed to start winning their overseas Super Rugby matches on a regular basis. The Bok coach reasoned that this would make the task that much easier when the national team travelled Down Under for the all important Rugby Championship later in the year.

It was a big statement to make given the Boks' relatively successful 2013 season. The Boks won 10 of their 12 matches, including record-breaking wins in Mendoza and Brisbane. They beat the Wallabies, home and away, and beat them by convincing margins.

But in 2014, the Boks will be expected to do more than beat the Wallabies in Australia and South Africa. Meyer’s charges must defeat the All Blacks, be it at home or away. That will be the measure of their progress.

The Boks last beat the All Blacks in South Africa in 2011. They haven’t beaten the All Blacks in New Zealand since 2009, and have only managed two wins on Kiwi soil in the past 16 years.

With the latter record in mind, it’s easy to understand why Meyer would want his players to cultivate a belief that winning in New Zealand is possible. Unfortunately, the Boks’ Test record in New Zealand is not the only mental stumbling block, as South Africa’s Super Rugby teams have battled to obtain results in this region over the past two seasons.

In 2013, South Africa’s teams finished the tournament with a collective win-record of three from 10 in New Zealand. Thus far, the 2014 competition has witnessed six matches in New Zealand, and six defeats.

The Lions and Sharks will endeavour to change that over the next four weeks. It's a big ask for the Lions, who came into this competition with only a handful of experienced players.

They’ve since lost the likes of Bok lock Franco van der Merwe, and without this sort of quality and experience, they will battle to secure results on what is a long and difficult tour to Australasia.

It will fall to the Sharks to fly the South African flag abroad. The team from Durban has been identified as South Africa’s best shot at the Super Rugby title in 2014. In the context of this particular argument, they are South Africa’s only hope of a win in New Zealand.

The Bulls, Cheetahs, and Stormers have all failed to win in New Zealand. What this means is that, regardless of the Lions and Sharks’ tour results, South Africa will finish the competition with more Super Rugby defeats than victories in the Land of the Long White Cloud.

Nevertheless, the Sharks must ensure that South Africa obtains some form of psychological currency before the Rugby Championship.

They're scheduled to play the Rebels in Melbourne this week and the Brumbies in Canberra thereafter. These won't be easy encounters, and yet the Sharks must look to build some momentum. It’s absolutely crucial that the Sharks win one or both of their last two tour matches in New Zealand.

The Sharks have been the best South African side in this year’s competition by some distance, and some may feel that they will fare better than the Bulls, Cheetahs, and Stormers Down Under. That said, their task is an unenviable one given the timing of this tour.

They will play the Crusaders and Blues in weeks three and four of their sojourn, and this decreases their chances of victory. Injuries and fatigue could well compromise their cause.

Meyer, and indeed the rest of South Africa, will be hoping that the Sharks remain intact and do enough to claim a Kiwi scalp. No doubt Steve Hansen and the All Blacks supporters will be hoping for the opposite, that the Kiwi sides complete a clean sweep of their South African counterparts on New Zealand soil.

There’s a lot to play for on the Sharks' upcoming tour to Australasia, and not just in a Super Rugby context. It's for this reason that all South African rugby supporters would do well to get behind the Sharks.

Photo: Sabelo Mngoma/BackpagePix

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Jon Cardinelli