Vodacom Super Rugby
Comment: Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
S15 alarm bell as Sharks sink
Cape Town – One extremely tepid “quarter-final” followed by an all-too-predictable one a day later ... hardly good advertisements for the expanded format of Vodacom Super Rugby this year, were they?
Saturday saw the Crusaders duly stub out the Sharks’ playoff challenge with a strong measure of ease as the South Africans, not surprisingly, found the globetrotting requirement to Nelson too heavy a cross to carry this late in the gruelling campaign after the sweat required to down the Bulls at Loftus.
And only 24 hours earlier, the Blues had beaten the injury-plagued Waratahs in another knockout affair marked by notably low intensity and quality for such an important tussle on paper – and certainly one you would not wish to keep on PVR storage for very long.
In a nutshell, we are seeing teams in the maiden finals series rather running on empty, not making for good spectacles and with the public voting with their feet anyway: the crowd was abjectly poor at Eden Park and they couldn’t even fill claustrophobic little Trafalgar Park for the Saturday follow-up match.
Newlands, thank goodness, will be packed to the near-50 000 capacity rafters for the semi-final now definitely featuring the seven-times champions and home hopefuls the Stormers, but that is a venue that traditionally gets bumper gates for knockout matches anyway, be they in the domestic Currie Cup or Super Rugby.
And the occasion will obviously be spiced further by the astonishingly large, ever-controversial Cape Town support-base for the Crusaders, with cries of “Sonny Bill, Sonny Bill” likely to ring out once more after rugby league convert Williams played an influential part in shattering the Sharks’ dreams.
Mind you, even this amazingly gifted individual wasn’t totally on his A-game, and blotted his copybook with some dishonourable little moments of impetuosity or, in one case, an Oscar-seeking fall – after a very mild, borderline obstruction on him -- that unsurprisingly conned Bryce Lawrence.
Yes, even the referee hardly gave a stellar demonstration of his trade in this fixture, with a few downright wacky calls at times.
Surrendering by the uncomfortable margin of 28 points, this was the Durban-based team’s worst defeat of the season, eclipsing the 20-point reverse to the Stormers at Newlands and 16-point gap when the Crusaders beat them at Twickenham in the ordinary-season fixture.
Then, back on March 27 when legs were collectively so much fresher, these foes had produced a near-classic game of rugby, with the Sharks emerging with credit, despite the loss, for playing with near-comparable thrust and relish for decent periods themselves.
But try as they did in the lead-up to creatively wrestle the fly-through-several-time-zones bogey, Stefan Terblanche and company just couldn’t emulate the bloody-minded commitment demonstrated in Pretoria last weekend.
Give them their due: they were very much in the game for the first half-hour or so, but even that was partly because the Crusaders themselves, normally so polished and disciplined, were guilty of a rare rash of individual errors that prevented this match from ever lifting beyond mediocrity.
But gradually the Sharks were worn down, to the extent that visits by them to the Crusaders’ quarter in the second half could be counted pretty much on one finger, never mind a hand.
Instead the wily old Crusaders went into a kind of cruise-control mode, clearly determined not to use up too much gas for their own long haul to the Western Cape, and content to let Dan Carter simply rack up penalty points off the tee to keep them well out of danger of eclipse.
It hardly made for thrill-a-minute stuff, especially as the benches were raided more and more as the clock wound down – the Sharks through desperation for some match-turning X-factor and the hosts with bigger fish to fry down the line in mind.
SANZAR bosses will be praying that the semis and then final itself produce altogether more zestful fare, because otherwise the new Super Rugby beast – remember, it is to stretch even longer calendar-wise next year – is going to cop deepening critical scrutiny.
And to think that there is a likelihood of even more franchises being added in the near future ... more is less, I am starting to think.