Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town – Hardly unsurprisingly, both away teams in Saturday’s
Super Rugby semi-finals are reasonably clear-cut underdogs ... but the hands of
the Sharks and Brumbies do possibly contain at least one or two favourable
cards. Or they must believe they do.
Those sides face the unenviable respective tasks of beating
the Crusaders in Christchurch (09:35) and Waratahs in Sydney (11:40).
So much, and so obviously, seems in favour of the hosts in
the two clashes at this advanced stage of the hugely arduous campaign.
Although there has been the odd exception to the rule, the
Waratahs and Crusaders ending first and second on the ordinary-season table
presents an automatic semis advantage of significant proportions under the
This is a time of the year, after months of Super Rugby slog
and also the residual effect of a jam-packed June Test “window” – an
inappropriate description if ever there was one – when a rest weekend ahead of
a semi is an asset, on paper, to be treasured like gold.
It’s like getting the best two slots on the starting grid
for a Grand Prix at a circuit where overtaking is notoriously difficult, given
that both the ‘Tahs and ‘Saders had the satisfaction of putting their feet up
last weekend to watch this weekend’s opponents have to fend off other teams
(fairly narrowly in each instance) in a preliminary round of finals series
As if that wasn’t bad enough, the winning teams’ “reward” is
a move onward to semis on hostile terrain.
In the case of the Sharks, who ended above the Brumbies in
ordinary season, they are perversely more penalised in many respects because
they have had to fly across time zones yet again for their fixture.
For the Brumbies, at least their trip is an altogether
simpler, less fatiguing one: a three-and-a-half-hour drive, and only some 285km,
for the Sydney derby against the comfortably log-topping Waratahs.
But if there is one potential ally for both visiting teams,
it is that for all the smugness of their foes’ smooth finals series draw, it
has exposed them to the possibilities of staleness taking some kind of hold on
How often, after all, don’t you hear Super Rugby coaches,
across the three conferences, lamenting the “rustiness” they perceive their
troops to have had if they’ve lost a game (or at least not had things all their
own way) a week after the supposed, refreshing benefit of a bye?
“Our lineout precision wasn’t as sharp as it should have
been,” or “we battled a bit with our scrum engagement in this game” and “we
lost our backline shape”... those are the sort of rugby clichés, if you like,
that get trotted out from time to time at post-game press conferences.
So yes, occasionally coaches, and often not without some justification,
do warn of the minor down side of swinging back into action after an idle week.
We all know that several of the Sharks squad, especially,
are running on reserve batteries at this point, and let’s not kid ourselves:
they’d have eagerly chosen a bye last weekend if they had only been in the
position to secure it.
But they might do well to try to convince themselves, as a
motivational tool, that having a game a week before a high-pressure semi isn’t
all bad: their “accuracies” may just be a tad more polished than the Crusaders’
as a result.
A quick examination of the records this season, after their
two stipulated bye weekends, of the Christchurch semi-finalists on Saturday
does reveal that it wasn’t completely plain sailing for them.
The Crusaders, for example, lost once and won once after
byes –and the defeat was a slightly unexpected 29-26 home one against the
Hurricanes at AMI Stadium, scene of this week’s semi.
Rubbing further salt in that day was the fact that the
‘Canes even did it with a four-try bonus point.
The Sharks, admittedly, were OK: coincidentally both their
post-bye clashes came against limited compatriots the Lions (eventually 12th
overall), and they won 37-23 in Durban with a late-secured bonus point and then
25-12 in Johannesburg although the latter was far from a classic, featuring
only one try all game via Lwazi Mvovo.
You might argue that it would be clutching at straws for the
Sharks and Brumbies to honestly believe that having turned out last weekend
will work decisively in their favour as they try their “David” acts on
A counter argument might be: in the face of adversity, and
when there isn’t an awful lot else to take genuinely big hope from, why on
earth not see some blessings in it?
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