Gavin Rich - SuperSport
Johannesburg - The challenge of beating the Crusaders in Nelson in their qualifying match for the Super Rugby Finals Series on Saturday was intensified before the Sharks' departure for New Zealand by two things.
The first was the ash cloud hanging over Australia courtesy of a volcano in distant Chile which on Tuesday forced the closure of Sydney airport, which is the route the Sharks are taking on their journey to Nelson via Wellington.
When the Sharks flew out on Tuesday night they weren't entirely sure where they were going to land as the airport was still closed at the time of departure and the flight was only allowed to leave because it was anticipated the cloud would have cleared by time of arrival. If it doesn't, the flight will be diverted to Brisbane, which will present its own logistical challenge for the Sharks management as they are booked onto a connecting flight from Sydney to Wellington.
The other happening before departure that added to the challenge was lock Steve Sykes' failure of a fitness test. The first choice front lock missed the Loftus win over the Bulls because of an ankle injury, and seeing as he is continuing his career in Ireland after the Super Rugby season ends, he may now have played his last game for the Sharks.
Sykes would probably have played off the bench in Nelson if he had been declared fit as Gerhard Mostert was excellent in the 26-23 win over the Bulls, but the stalwart is nonetheless a big loss to the Sharks in that his style of play suits the anticipated conditions.
"Steve would have been handy in New Zealand given the expected conditions, with rain and cold predicted for the game, but then Alistair Hargreaves and Gerhard Mostert had really big games against the Bulls," said coach John Plumtree at a pre-departure press conference in Durban.
The Sharks conducted a couple of fitness test on players before departure. While Sykes is missing out on the trip, which could become a three week sojourn if they win through their various knock-out games, wing Odwa Ndungane has now recovered from the hand injury that has kept him out for the past few weeks and left with the team.
Jacques Botes is also back in place of Marcell Coetzee and is likely to play off the bench. Eugene van Staden, who missed the Loftus match, is also back in the group to swell the number of players travelling overseas to 24. It is unlikely though that Plumtree will change the winning formula from Loftus, although he says conditions should be markedly different to Pretoria.
Plumtree said that the late departure of the team - they would normally have flown out as soon as possible after their last league game - was down to them wanting to try something different based on what had worked for the Bulls and the Springboks in recent years.
"We will stay on South African time for the duration of our visit. For a farm boy like me it is a very foreign thing but maybe the players will be more used to going to bed at 2am and waking up at noon," said Plumtree.
The problem of course is that while the leave it as late as possible policy has indeed worked in the past for the Bulls and Boks in a first tour match, it often catches up with them in the second week. However the Sharks have probably rightly reasoned that it is worth a gamble as their will be no second week or second match if they don't beat the Crusaders.