The Sharks will become the first South African team to win a playoff in New Zealand if they defy the odds to beat the Crusaders in Christchurch on Saturday. JON CARDINELLI reports.
Can anyone stop the Crusaders?
The Crusaders have won 31 matches and lost three since Scott Robertson took the reins in 2017. While the Hurricanes (twice) and Highlanders have beaten the Crusaders during this period, no team has managed to down the Cantabrians in Christchurch.
The odds are certainly against the Sharks snapping that streak this Saturday. Indeed, wins for South African teams in New Zealand have been hard to come by since the inception of the tournament in 1996.
South African teams have combined for three wins in 24 matches played in New Zealand over the past three seasons. They have featured in 11 playoff games staged in New Zealand over the past 23 years – and have lost on every single occasion.
The Sharks lost 36-32 to the Crusaders in their 1998 semi-final. That’s the closest a side from the Republic has got to a playoff win in New Zealand.
Other than that, no South African side has managed to finish within 10 points of the opposition. The average scoreline across those 11 playoff games is 38-15 in favour of the Kiwis.
It’s interesting to note that the Sharks have featured in seven of those 11 matches. They went down 45-21 to the Blues in the 1996 final, and were hammered 41-0 by the Hurricanes in their most recent playoff match in New Zealand in 2016.
South African teams have struggled in Christchurch over the past two decades. The Sharks were the last side to win in this part of the world when they overcame tremendous odds to beat the Crusaders 30-25 during the conference stage of 2014. They went on to lose 38-6 at the same venue in the semi-finals, though.
It must be said that the class of 2014 boasted some big names in the lineup. World Cup winners such as the Du Plessis brothers, Frans Steyn and JP Pietersen were all in tow, as were other senior Springboks like Beast Mtawarira and Willem Alberts.
The Sharks team that arrived in Christchurch on Monday does not boast the same quality and experience. That said, many South Africans will be hoping that the Sharks can end the rotten playoff-run in New Zealand and ultimately improve the chances of Johannesburg hosting another Super Rugby final.
The Lions, who finished second in the overall standings, need the Sharks to win this Saturday. They will want to avoid a journey to Christchurch for the final – should they progress that far.
The Lions and Sharks are the only South African teams who have won in New Zealand over the past three years. The Lions beat the Chiefs in Hamilton back in 2016. The Sharks downed the Highlanders two years ago, and put 63 points past the Blues earlier this season. Both teams have lost more than they’ve won in that part of the world, though.
The Lions have a one-from-five record in New Zealand since the start of 2016, with their most recent game – the 2016 final against the Hurricanes – ending in a heavy 20-3 defeat.
The Sharks have won two from six in New Zealand during this period, but haven’t played the Crusaders in Christchurch since 2014.
SA RESULTS IN SUPER RUGBY PLAYOFFS IN NEW ZEALAND
2016: Hurricanes 20 Lions 3 (final)
2016: Hurricanes 41 Sharks 0 (quarter-final)
2014: Crusaders 38 Sharks 6 (semi-final)
2012: Chiefs 37 Sharks 6 (final)
2012: Crusaders 28 Bulls 13 (qualifier)
2011: Crusaders 36 Sharks 8 (qualifier)
2006: Crusaders 35 Bulls 15 (semi-final)
2004: Crusaders 27 Stormers 16 (semi-final)
1998: Crusaders 36 Sharks 32 (semi-final)
1997: Blues 55 Sharks 36 (semi-final)
1996: Blues 45 Sharks 21 (final)
Photo: Martin Hunter/Getty Images