Gavin Rich - SuperSport
Johannesburg - As the Cell C Sharks slid down an inexorable path to complete humiliation in a one-sided Vodacom Super Rugby semi-final in Christchurch at the weekend, it was hard not to think about the words used by Highlanders coach Jamie Joseph the previous Saturday in throwing forward to the game.
According to the supersport.com website, Joseph, after seeing his team squeezed out by a narrow margin by a Sharks team that relied almost exclusively on a superior scrum, tried hard to be polite when he was asked by Durban based reporters how the Sharks would do against the Crusaders, but he also left little doubt what he really thought when he pointed out that the Sharks were going to be up against a “complete team”.
The Highlanders, with such a weak forward pack, are not a complete team, and the Sharks, playing to their current template, are a million miles from being a complete team. And the message that came out of the Christchurch annihilation was a simple one not only for the Sharks, but for South African rugby as a whole - to win Sanzar trophies, you do need to be a complete team.
The Brumbies are a more complete team than they were a year ago, the Waratahs could be described as a complete team, so three of the four semifinalists were teams that play a more complete game, and you would have said the same about the Chiefs, who won the competition in 2012 and 2013.
Against a Stormers team depleted at forward the Sharks were able to bludgeon and kick their way to victory two weeks ago, against a Highlanders team playing off scraps they were able to sneak home, but up against a team that was strong at forward and was as adept at executing a pinpoint field kicking strategy as they were at running the ball into space, they had no price.
Die-hard Sharks fans may point out that the travel obstacle was a massive one, and it was, but as the Sharks coach himself said often enough last week, if you look at the names on the Sharks’ and the experience packed into the side, they did have the firepower to compete.
What the Sharks faced this time wasn’t what they had to do in 2012, when under John Plumtree they had to fly to Brisbane and back before crossing the Indian Ocean again for their final against the Chiefs in Hamilton.
It was one trip across the ocean, and while away wins in play-off games are rare, it is not as if they are impossible, as the Highlanders and Crusaders showed at Newlands in 1999 and 2011 and White’s Brumbies did at Loftus last year.
The Sharks did have a chance going into the semi-final, what they lacked was the ability to find a way to survive against a good team if the kicking game they rely so completely on was not accurate or upstaged by their opponents.
In Christchurch both things happened – the Sharks’ kickers were all over the shop, while the Crusaders, provided an object lesson on how to go about executing a kicking game.
Whereas the Sharks kicks were like manna from Heaven for Crusaders fullback Israel Dagg because they were so deep and there was no semblance of a chase, most of the Crusaders kicks were of the contestable variety.
Their kicking game was as instrumental in building a winning platform for the Crusaders as their hard-working pack and the skilled running and handling towards space that stretched the Sharks in the early stages. In short, the Crusaders mixed up their game beautifully, something they are adept at doing because that is the way they play.
The Sharks of two years ago, as well as having a decent pack, were capable of doing that. They became known as the off-load kings of South African rugby when, after key players who had been out for much of the season through injury, they picked up enough of a head of steam to surge into the final.
But the Sharks have regressed since then, and while it is true that this time they went further than previous Sharks teams in that they won the South African conference, that is not something to celebrate if you consider how weak the conference was this year.
The Sharks did miss Patrick Lambie for much of their Super Rugby campaign, but compared to the Stormers they had few injuries to worry about and they also had a far more settled team than the Bulls, who have lost players overseas in waves over the past two seasons.
The Sharks, with the core of the team having played together over a long period, something that is becoming rarer in Super Rugby, had so much in their favour this year, and their coach wasn’t shy to boldly predict at the start of the year that they would win Super Rugby.
And there was good reason for his optimism, for apart from having such excellent players at his disposal, White also had a team that had been presented with a dream draw.
They did make the most of that draw in the early stages, building up a good lead in both the conference and on the overall log up to the halfway point and beyond. But since the unexpected defeat to the Highlanders on the eve of their tour, the Sharks mostly struggled, and the historic win over the Crusaders in a league match in May might have sent out a false message.
The Crusaders were missing several of the players who starred for them in the semifinal in that league game, and they also conspired against themselves by playing dumb rugby after Sharks flanker Jean Deysel was sent from the field.
Suspect temperament, which can be exposed in Kiwi teams in low scoring games, did them in on that occasion.
But this past Saturday they had their A-team and they brought their A-game, and their complete team buried a Sharks combination that would have been hosting the semi-final rather than travelling had there been a greater attacking dimension to their play in the league phase.
The message that was sent out to South African rugby was an unambiguous one – Super Rugby silverware will remain elusive, as will consistent success, until such time as the teams morph away from being the one-trick ponies that the Sharks were this year and the Stormers were in 2012.
White says it is boring that the first placed team ends up playing the second placed team in the final, but the rugby played by the Waratahs and Crusaders in the league phase exemplified what is needed to win the competition.