Sharks will like underdog tag
Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town - They’ve done what they had to do ... but arguably in a manner that will only further entrench them as second favourites for their away Super Rugby semi-final against the Crusaders on Saturday (09:35 SA time).
As it happened: Sharks v Highlanders
The Sharks survived the Highlanders’ sparkle on the counter-attack to eke out their “quarter-final” 31-27 at Kings Park on Saturday, experiencing plenty of nervy moments along the way but sealing the game clinically enough when it really mattered in the dying minutes.
They will probably take stubbornly on the chin any suggestions that their game-plan is limited and predictable - it is limited and predictable! - and point to the fact that their forward-dominated approach and merciless physicality and strangulation ethic has got them this far, with just two further obstacles to overcome to a maiden title.
It is a comforting fact, whatever your thoughts on Jake White’s ways, that his charges have overcome in successive weeks first a team that pinned them to their own quarter for significant periods, the Stormers, and then one that ran magically at them from deep sometimes, despite glaring inferiority in set-piece possession.
They call it “knockout rugby” and it is something White is historically good at: his current charges have bought into it enthusiastically and effectively on most occasions when it has been relevant this year.
The template brings risks through its conservatism, and it was almost undone - in a three-tries-all nailbiter - by the Highlanders, who had managed to do so when they near-humiliated the Sharks in Durban earlier in the season.
But so clear-cut was the Sharks’ mastery up front in the latest clash that it must give them at least a puncher’s chance of achieving an almost unthinkable second win in the same season over the formidable Crusaders in their own den.
Their scrum was a lethal weapon of rare proportions, almost running the Highlanders pack back metres at a time and earning penalties galore, whilst the mass rolling maul was similarly put to excellent use at times.
All that said, it is stating the obvious that when the Sharks hit Christchurch, after the debilitating effects of another long-haul flight plus their opponents’ bye into the semi-final, they will do so very aware that the All Black-laden ‘Saders pack will be no such pushovers and may achieve parity in the boiler room ... at the very least.
The Sharks will certainly be installed by most neutral tipsters as underdogs, especially given the glaringly poor record of teams having to cross continents for a Super Rugby semi or final.
Not only that, but it may also be educative that just a week ago the Crusaders saw off the very same Highlanders in a much more consummate manner, winning 34-8 in Christchurch and without their opponents having had to cross time zones for the fixture.
It only stacks the odds in favour of the home side, although the Sharks ought not mind one bit that they will be the underdogs abroad, having been so overwhelmingly tipped to really whip the Highlanders on Saturday and coming up rather short in that scenario.
Also to chew on, maybe, are the sobering words in a column earlier this week of former Sharks-based guru Brendan Venter: “White’s model for success is not a fool-proof plan and, in terms of strategy, is very limited.
“Its success or failure is largely dependent on the level of intensity the players are able to deliver on a particular match day.”
Still, if a suitably up-for-it Sharks - under that tireless trench fighter Bismarck du Plessis - can lock the Crusaders into an uncompromising arm-wrestle, stopping them from “playing” and thus irritating them no end, their chances of an upset will soar.
But nobody needs reminding that it is a mighty big if ... Saturday’s close shave was confirmation.
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