Cape Town - Despite their heroic recent run, renowned South African sport scientist Ross Tucker still believes the Sharks are up against a massive travel burden ahead of their Super Rugby final against the Chiefs in Hamilton on Saturday.
Tucker last week predicted the Stormers would have an 8-10 point head-start
on the Sharks after the Durbanites had to travel back from Australia for the semi-final in Cape Town. But the Sharks defied the odds and won the game 26-19, a result Tucker feels was in fact more impressive than the seven-point buffer suggests.
"My interpretation of the final score (win by seven for the Sharks) is that they were probably in the range of 15 points better than their opposition on the day - they were even better than the score-line suggests," he said in a statement on Monday.
"I was quoted before the match as saying that there was perhaps an 8 to 10 point handicap for the Sharks to overcome. This was interpreted as a prediction that the Sharks would lose by 8 to 10 points, but it was anything but - it was simply a report that analysing the history of the tournament suggested that long travel, plus playing away, was worth a “deficit” of this size before the match even began. Of course either side could still win, but the Sharks would need to be that much better to do so."
Tucker feels the Sharks' effort over the last two weeks was nothing short of remarkable, after they flew to Brisbane and beat the Reds 30-17, before beating the Stormers the next week in Cape Town.
"We know from numerous studies that performance is quite significantly affected as a result of travel. Cognitive function - mood, decision-making and awareness - is compromised.
"Travel also affects physical function, not least because of the lack of sleep and demanding long flights. Even a 5% drop in power and endurance can impact on a team’s performance, and I do think that in the semi-final, the final 15 minutes showed that, as the Sharks were beginning to fatigue, but had been good enough to have built a lead and then defend it," said Tucker.
While not saying a victory over the Chiefs is impossible, Tucker nevertheless feels it is an enormous task ahead of Keegan Daniel's men, predicting that this time they'll probably start with a 15-point handicap against them.
"The effects of jet lag partly explain why teams so rarely leave their country in the tournament and win. Analysing the history of Super Rugby has shown that only about 35% of matches are won by the away team, and when the away team must fly across time-zones, it falls to 20%. Doing so three times in three weeks means that the Sharks have a huge hurdle to overcome, as they did prior to playing the Stormers.
"But it is possible, and the Sharks should not be written off in any match. It’s just that they face a barrier or handicap prior to matches, and have to be that much better to win the match.
"Looking at the upcoming final, analysis of the last six years of Super Rugby has found that the Chiefs’ home-ground advantage is worth approximately two points, and that international travel is worth five points. Travelling three times means that the Sharks have a handicap that is probably about 15 points large. Again, this is not a prediction - all it is saying is that the Sharks, in order to win it, will have to be 15 points or more better than the Chiefs, because of the burden of travel they face.
"Can they do it? Absolutely. And if they do, it will go down as the greatest sequence of matches ever for a South African professional club team," said Tucker.