It was a case of the Sharks, to the man, simply not being good enough to beat the Crusaders in Christchurch, writes MARK KEOHANE.
No South African team has ever won a Super Rugby semi-final in New Zealand – and the Sharks were never in this match.
The heroics of their league win against the Crusaders earlier this season were well and truly consigned to the tournament archives. This was an emphatic response from the hosts, who were playing a 13th successive Super Rugby semi-final and have qualified for an 11th final. They have won seven of their previous 10 final appearances, but the last victory was in 2008 and in the past five years they have been the bridesmaids of the play-offs.
There will be understandable disappointment within South Africa, but the defeat should not detract from a good Sharks season in which they won the South African conference and finished third in the overall conference, just one league point behind the Crusaders.
Home-ground advantage is massive in this tournament, especially when a team has to travel 12,000km to win the game.
The Sharks, on reflection, will bemoan the injury-time defeat against the Stormers in Durban as the minute that turned their season from a potentially brilliant one into a good one.
Sharks director of rugby Jake White articulated it best after the Sharks won three out of four matches in Australia and New Zealand. ‘We are now on the high road.’
When the Sharks lost at home, White said: ‘We are now taking the low road.’
And when the Sharks lost again 27-20 to the Cheetahs in Bloemfontein, White announced. ‘We are now on the dirt road.’
It was always going to be a difficult dirt road in Christchurch.
The Crusaders, until losing to the Sharks earlier this year, had not lost in New Zealand against a South African team in 50 matches. They were not going to lose against the same team twice in a season. The Crusaders were too good and the Sharks simply not good enough.
The travel and the play-off of a week ago would have been contributing factors for any team asked to travel, but this was not the determining factor.
The Crusaders, with Kieran Read and Dan Carter starting, were a class above the Sharks. Richie McCaw’s presence, in his 130th Super Rugby outing, only added to the magnitude of the task.
The Sharks needed dominance in the tight exchanges and a good field position line-kicking game to have any chance of a win. At best, they got parity in the set piece and never got any form of line-kicking game going, with Pat Lambie and Frans Steyn inaccurate and uninspiring.
Individually, there were some horror moments. Most notably from outside centre Paul Jordaan, but no one individual was to blame for the crushing semi-final defeat.
The disappointment is that the Sharks didn’t give it more of a go and that there wasn’t the contest every South African had hoped for.
Credit must go to the hosts. They fronted the Sharks physically, imposed their pace and tempo on the game and relied on the influence of world-class players like Keiran Read, Richie McCaw and Dan Carter to complete the Sharks' misery.
There is nothing to quibble about in terms of the result, but the manner of defeat will obviously lead to emotional outbursts lambasting the Sharks and questioning the quality of the side.
The Sharks, to win the competition, had to be hosting a semi-final and final. They lost a game (in Bloemfontein) you’d have expected them to win but won a game (in Christchurch) you’d have picked them to lose.
The one that hurt them the most was the defeat in Durban.
White said he underestimated how much the three-win tour effort drained his players, but the reality is that Charl McLeod’s kicking away of the ball against the Stormers in Durban with 20 seconds to go – and the Sharks leading – was the moment that killed their championship prospects.
What happened in Christchurch on Saturday merely confirmed the cost of that McLeod kick against the Stormers.
There has already been offensive targeting of the Sharks on the social media forums, but to every South African having a pot, reflect on the campaigns of the Bulls, Stormers, Cheetahs and Lions.
This will be into context that the Sharks season was a very good one, if not the exceptional one needed to win the competition.
Photo: Martin Hunter/Getty Images