History’s burden on Sharks

    2012-07-31 11:22

    Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer

    Cape Town – Five times in Super Rugby history since its most formal inception in 1996, teams have crossed the Indian Ocean in either direction for the final ... each time they have flown home empty-handed.

    That is the cold fact that weighs on the unenviably globe-trotting Sharks as they prepare for Saturday’s (09:35 SA time) 2012 showpiece against the Chiefs in Hamilton.

    Already science and sheer common sense suggests they will be up against it at Waikato Stadium, with prominent sports scientist Ross Tucker suggesting this week that they will effectively carry a 15-point handicap into the clash.

    Even under more normal circumstances in this competition, they say that it is the second week after a long haul when teams really start to be debilitated by the travel – so Keegan Daniel’s troops ought to be starting to feel the effects now of their passage to and from Australia for that initial finals series task against the Reds in Brisbane.

    But they have since made the gruelling passage again, which in layman’s terms might be deemed a little like trying to cure a hangover with a “papsak” of late harvest.

    A glance at the Super Rugby records only further decreases the likelihood that they will come out on top against the Chiefs, not least because they have been the victims in two of the five instances where the trek between continents has proved a bridge too far for the finalists undertaking it.

    In 1996, they were the first side to come up short in this fashion ... and that was in the days when the rugby calendar was not nearly so obscenely, tightly-packed.

    They played that final against the Blues in Auckland as many as 17 days after seeing off the Reds in a Brisbane semi-final, so there had at least been some opportunity for recharge – it didn’t help, as they were well beaten 45-21 by the home side of Sean Fitzpatrick’s heyday.

    Three years later, in 1999, the Highlanders flew to Cape Town to play the Stormers in a semi, and came away with a 33-18 victory – but already the final was starting to be scheduled only a week onward, and they were beaten at their then-Carisbrook stronghold 24-19 by the altogether fresher Crusaders.

    The Sharks had their second stab at flying to Australasia for a final, a week after winning an all-South African semi against the Cats 30-12 at Kings Park, in 2001.

    They took on the then-emerging Brumbies at Bruce Stadium in Canberra, and in terms of scoring sequence the match certainly seemed to highlight the perils attached to the long-distance flight.

    The Sharks were highly competitive in the first half, with flyhalf Butch James typically rugged and direct and often pushing the boundaries of tackling legality as the visitors tried to unsettle the Brumbies’ touted halfback combo of Messrs Gregan and Larkham.

    It was 6-6 at the break but then the home team went up a vital gear in the second period and ran in three unanswered tries, two of them going to prolific Wallabies wing Joe Roff, as the final score read a convincing 36-6.

    As one newspaper noted: “The Sharks, despite their heavy pack, began at an electric pace although their fatigue after travelling from South Africa saw them almost out on their feet in the second half.”

    The only time that one of the Antipodean sides has made the pilgrimage to South Africa for the showpiece game, came in 2009 when this Saturday’s home finalists, the Chiefs, got on a plane straight after beating the Hurricanes in an all-NZ semi at Hamilton.

    They hardly need reminding that they suffered easily the worst slaughter ever in a final: 61-17 in the heartless Highveld air against a rampant Bulls side, who registered eight tries (Fourie du Preez and Bryan Habana two each, others by Pierre Spies, Victor Matfield, Wynand Olivier and Danie Rossouw) in the process.

    Last season’s final was the fifth instance of the jet-lagged visiting side failing to deliver the silverware: the Crusaders may have been mightily impressive in seeing off the Stormers 29-10 in a Newlands semi, but the journey back sapped much more of their strength and they lost 18-13 to the Reds in Brisbane seven days later.

    The Sharks of 2012 have had the most punishing lead-up schedule of the lot en route to Saturday’s Hamilton encounter, although coach John Plumtree did try to gee up his side by saying after the 26-19 triumph over the Stormers: “If we don’t do this (under such unfavourable circumstances), someone will eventually.

    “If we can get up physically, anything can happen.”

    At least his brave men have the incentive of achieving what many neutrals regard as the emphatically unachievable ...

    *Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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