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    Sharks deserved an extra week

    2012-08-01 11:59
    Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer

    Cape Town – A fortnight between the semi-finals and final ... that is arguably the best way for the Super Rugby format, as presently constituted, to maintain a greater semblance of credibility.

    Instead it is rightly under fire – there has even been some significant New Zealand sympathy this week for the Sharks’ absurd travel schedule – ahead of Saturday’s showpiece in Hamilton between the Chiefs and the bleary-eyed visitors from KwaZulu-Natal.

    Scientists may well argue that an extra week wouldn’t necessarily aid the Sharks’ prolific, globe-trotting plight that much, given that jetlag is something with variable “kick-in” times; it can feature delayed reactions.

    But you suspect Keegan Daniel’s hard-pressed team would at least feel some sense of mental stimulus, even if it did not automatically transfer to their limbs and muscles, if they’d had the benefit of an extra seven days of preparation, which would be likely to include some elements of complete relaxation and a few relatively “mild” training sessions.

    There was just a hint of understandable sarcasm in his thoughts when Daniel tweeted on Sunday, less than a day after the gruelling semi-final victory over the Stormers at Newlands: “Loving OR Tambo, here again, airports are your friend.”

    Before the major rugby calendar became so crazily, ever more progressively jam-packed, there was one merciful instance, in 1996, when the final was, indeed, scheduled two weeks after the semis – it didn’t aid the Sharks then, in scoreboard terms, as they were still thumped 45-21 by the Blues in Auckland, but that may simply have been because that was a genuine heyday period for that New Zealand franchise and their home advantage was also a telling factor.

    Ironically, this season’s Super Rugby campaign, the second under the debatable new conference system with its extended playoffs phase, did start rather later than last year’s – February 24 as opposed to 2011’s February 18.

    Of course it is a complicated issue, because there does have to be an “off-season” – inverted commas intended! -- in some shape or form, and free weekends within the southern hemisphere season barely exist.

    The Currie Cup premier division begins as quickly as next weekend, whilst the new-look Castle Rugby Championship, at international level, starts on August 18, and the various Test players involved from the competing countries deserve a freshening hiatus before they get stuck into each other anew. 

    But perhaps it is worth contemplating restoring Super Rugby to a slightly earlier start, if it will allow for a gap between the semis and final and simultaneously give its feature game that bit more credibility and a “level playing field” feel?

    This week Wynne Gray of national newspaper The New Zealand Herald joined the chorus of sympathy for the Sharks’ agenda woe.

    “Sympathy and South Africa are not always comfortable companions in the same rugby sentence,” he said on Wednesday.

    “However, the Sharks have got a really raw deal as they approach the (final).

    “When they return to Durban, they will have covered 55 000km during the playoffs taking in Johannesburg, Brisbane, Cape Town, Sydney, Hamilton and the points in between.

    “You’d be doing well to feel frisky with that itinerary on a holiday, never mind having the physical demands and mental anguish of playing three sudden-death matches, the pool and gym recovery, time spent over computer analysis and a bit on the training track.

    “That’s playing with an unfair deck, which will always be a problem in a competition topped with playoffs ... the three-conference system is uneven and flawed.”

    Gray said the Sharks winning would be a “monumental effort” and added: “Whatever the result, the Sharks’ tortuous finals route cannot be good for the players or the series.”

    And so say all of us?

    *Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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