The Sharks' milestone victory will fuel the belief that the Springboks can beat the All Blacks in New Zealand later this year, writes JON CARDINELLI.
The details of the Sharks’ performance in Christchurch this past Saturday should never be forgotten. They played 54 minutes of the game with 14 men, and 10 minutes with 13.
They overcame a significant setback when flank Jean Deysel was sent off, and proceeded to beat the seven-time champions in a region that has only ever witnessed one other defeat to a South African Super Rugby team. The Sharks of 2014 will go down in history for what they achieved in Christchurch, and their feats and attitude will serve to inspire every team that travels to that part of the world in future.
It was a massive result, not only for the KwaZulu-Natal franchise, but for South African rugby as well. It was especially important for the Boks, who will travel to New Zealand to face the All Blacks later this year.
While the Boks have evolved their game and produced some impressive results over the past two years, they are still trailing the All Blacks in several key areas. There is also the matter of their record against New Zealand since Heyneke Meyer took the reins. Meyer’s men have not beaten the All Blacks, home or away, in the past four meetings.
Meyer told this website earlier this year that the South African teams needed to work together if the Boks were going to beat the All Blacks in 2014. He pointed to tactical kicking and fitness as two areas that required improvement. He said that the New Zealanders' supreme fitness and mental strength allowed them to move up a gear in the final 20 minutes of big matches.
Meyer said that he wanted to see South African teams winning regularly in Australasia over the course of the 2014 Super Rugby competition, and thus cultivate a belief that success is possible in that part of the world. He would have been disappointed when the Bulls, Cheetahs, Stormers, and the Lions, so far, have lost all of their matches in Australia and New Zealand (a total of 15 defeats).
The combined South African record is reason for concern (two from 18), and in the context of the New Zealand versus South Africa rivalry, the former’s Super Rugby teams have fared far better both home and away in 2014.
And yet, it cannot be denied that the Sharks landed a psychological blow with their win in Christchurch, and that many of those players will believe a Test win in New Zealand is within reach.
There is a growing sense that the Boks are closing the gap on Test rugby’s trendsetters. You could feel the tension in the build-up to last year's Test between the All Blacks and Boks in Auckland. Many of the locals spoke of the Boks with renewed respect, and despite the All Blacks’ awesome record at Eden Park, many believed that Meyer’s men had a chance. Even former All Blacks captain Sean Fitzpatrick was reluctant to make a prediction before the game.
The Sharks secured a rare result this past Saturday, although it was the manner of victory in Christchurch that was so encouraging. The Sharks made the biggest statement in the second half when they outlasted the Crusaders. It didn’t matter that they had 14, and subsequently 13 men, they were physically and mentally stronger side in the dying stages.
While South Africa’s collective scorecard in Australasia will worry Meyer, he should be pleased with the Sharks' performance as well as the result in Christchurch. Indeed, that Sharks front row and several others will be back in New Zealand to represent the Boks in September. They will believe that the All Blacks are beatable on their home soil, now more so than in recent seasons.
Photo: John Davidson/Photosport