Gavin Rich - SuperSport
Johannesburg - The Sharks will enjoy the rare experience this weekend of having the whole country behind them in a Super Rugby match as they tackle the Crusaders in their qualifier.
During the league phase of the competition it was something of a weird feeling for many South Africans. While in the past the country would get behind local teams when they played against overseas opposition, with the only exception being during the closing stages of league competition when results of those games could make a difference to their team’s chances, this year has been different.
The conference system swept in by the new format to the competition meant that the quest for supremacy in the local pool had both the teams and supporters of the other South African franchises rooting for overseas teams. It was an understandable phenomenon, as the result impacted directly on their own team’s chances.
It explained the disappointment on a Sharks supporters voice a couple of weeks ago when he phoned me to ask the score in the match between the Stormers and Blues in Auckland. The Stormers had been behind the whole game and he was obviously hoping the match would end that way.
As it turned out, he phoned just as Dewaldt Duvenage slotted the conversion that won the game, and while down in Cape Town the excitement was hard to contain, you could sense that wasn’t the case on the other end of the phone line. Had the Stormers lost that day the Sharks would have been playing for top spot on the SA conference log when they faced the Bulls later that weekend, so it really wasn’t a case of the Durban man being unpatriotic – he just wanted what was best for his team.
That changes now this weekend. The Bulls are out of it so they and their supporters will surely be squarely behind the Sharks in their quest to score a big psychological blow for South Africa’s World Cup chances by knocking over the All Black dominated Crusaders in their own back yard.
Ditto the Cheetahs and the Lions, who for a long time wouldn’t have had much interest in the conference log anyway. And even the Stormers, the other remaining South African team left in the competition, will be supporting the Sharks, with senior professional coach Rassie Erasmus making no secret of where his allegiances lie.
“It will be nice to be patriotic for the first time this season by shouting for the Sharks,” he said.
“During the league season you didn’t want your fellow South African teams to win in the league stage. It will be great to back the Sharks to beat the Crusaders, because we can’t play them in a semi-final.”
Of course the Stormers will be hoping for a Sharks win for more than just patriotic reasons. Not for nothing are the Crusaders recognised as the all-time success story of Super Rugby, and they beat the Stormers at Newlands a few months ago with an under-strength team.
The Stormers would prefer to avoid a semi-final against them if they can, for the Blues or Waratahs would present an easier passage to the deciding game on 9 July.