Gavin Rich - SuperSport
Cape Town - Cell C Sharks coach Jake White is starting to sound like a broken down gramophone, but then that is probably because he keeps hearing the same thing from the media and public - that his team has no chance of getting through Saturday’s Super Rugby semi-final against the Crusaders in Christchurch, the supersport.com website
White started on what has now become his well-worn line when after the Newlands game against the Stormers it was confirmed that his team was going to have to do it the hard way if they were going to win the competition. Instead of finishing the league phase of the season in pole position, and thus playing all the playoff games at home, they would have to travel, and probably play two games overseas.
“If everyone just accepts that in this competition the first and second placed teams always contest the final, and that the winner always comes out of those two teams, then we might as well scrap the playoffs because then they are a waste of time,” said White in Cape Town.
A similar message came across in the post-match press conference following the Sharks’ narrow win over the Highlanders at Kings Park last Saturday night. And he has stuck to the same line now that he is in Christchurch preparing for the semi-final, presumably because he is hearing the same comments and being asked the same questions.
White does have some history of bucking trends, and he is drawing on that. Last year his Brumbies team had to play in the playoff round, as the Sharks did this season, by virtue of their finishing third. After beating the Cheetahs in that match, they had to cross the Indian Ocean to face the Bulls at altitude in a Loftus Versfeld semi-final.
Against the odds they won that one, and then ran the Chiefs close in the final in Hamilton the following week. There weren’t many teams who would have come that close against a good side like the Chiefs after all that travel backwards and forwards across the time zones.
And then there was the historic win his current team scored against the Crusaders at the same venue that the semi-final will be played. The Sharks hadn’t won in Christchurch before. Indeed, no South African team had in that city in many years. They did it while reduced to 14 men, so no wonder White sees some positive ahead of the return clash.
“There is no doubt that it is tough in New Zealand, but at the same time, we have to believe we have a chance. There are only four teams left - and we’re one of them - and we just need to give it a good go,” he said.
“It is great to break records, and winning in Christchurch last time was one of them. And now we have the chance to buck the trend that the team finishing first or second wins the tournament. It’s very important for us to do that as it is not fair that it is always first and second playing each other in a final.”
White also pointed out that the final finishing order in the competition might have been skewed in that the vagaries of the tournament, which doesn’t see every team play every other team, saw the Waratahs and Crusaders, the teams that finished first and second respectively, miss each other during the regular season.
“Something else I need to stress is that the Crusaders and Waratahs never played each other this season, and they filled the top two positions. So by not playing each other, one of them never lost out on points to the other.
“But maybe that’s the nice thing about this competition. Who would have thought we would have beaten the Crusaders last time? Who would have thought that the Highlanders would make the playoffs? That they would finish sixth after finishing badly down the order last year?
“The Crusaders have 18 All Blacks and have a lot going for them, but maybe the Crusaders are saying similar things about the Sharks: That Jake coached a lot of them to World Cup glory in 2007, that they defeated the Crusaders earlier in the season, that there is a lot of experience in the Sharks team with several battle-hardened test match veterans.”
The bottom line is that White isn’t accepting what some people consider to be the inevitable. He has broken records before and he has bucked trends before. He has the appetite to do it again.Teams:Crusaders
15 Israel Dagg, 14 Kieron Fonotia, 13 Ryan Crotty, 12 Dan Carter, 11 Nemani Nadolo, 10 Colin Slade, 9 Andy Ellis, 8 Kieran Read (captain), 7 Matt Todd, 6 Richie McCaw, 5 Sam Whitelock, 4 Dominic Bird, 3 Owen Franks, 2 Corey Flynn, 1 Wyatt Crockett
Substitutes: 16 Ben Funnell, 17 Joe Moody, 18 Nepo Laulala, 19 Jimmy Tupou, 20 Jordan Taufua, 21 Willi Heinz, 22 Tom Taylor, 23 Johnny McNichollSharks
15. SP Marais, 14. JP Pietersen, 13. Paul Jordaan, 12. Frans Steyn, 11. Lwazi Mvovo, 10. Pat Lambie, 9. Cobus Reinach, 8. Ryan Kankowski, 7. Jean Deysel, 6. Marcell Coetzee, 5. Stephan Lewies, 4. Willem Alberts, 3. Jannie du Plessis, 2. Bismarck du Plessis (captain), 1. Thomas du Toit
Substitutes: 16. Kyle Cooper, 17. Dale Chadwick, 18. Lourens Adriaanse, 19. Etienne Oosthuizen, 20. Tera Mtembu, 21. Charl McLeod, 22. S'bura Sithole, 23. Tonderai Chavhanga