Desperation drives Sharks on

    2014-07-13 22:29

    Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer

    Cape Town – The realist in me, and perhaps even a reluctant number of their diehard supporters, gives the Sharks little more than a 25-30 percent chance now of winning the 2014 Super Rugby title.

    The dreamer part wants to crank that up to nearer 40 or 50 percent ... and yes, Jake White’s charges are defiantly still kicking, still hopeful that they can earn a maiden main title success after being formally handed the SA conference trophy on Saturday night.

    But the Sharks will know that winning the competition from here means they’ll be flying strongly in the face of history.

    It is not since the lone instance of the 1999 campaign, in a professional-era Super Rugby tournament that began in 1996, that a team ending outside the top two positions on the ordinary-season table has seized the overall spoils.

    That side was seven-times champions the Crusaders, who finished fourth that year but beat the log-topping Reds 28-22 in an away semi-final, and then the Highlanders 24-19 in a final similarly on hostile terrain for them.

    Nobody in South Africa needs reminding that the Sharks -- pace-setters for so long this year -- ended an agonising, far less favourable third after Saturday’s completion of pre-knockout combat, behind the Waratahs and Crusaders in that order.

    It hands them what can best be described as the “hell run” to the honours, given that their tiring troops must play an effective quarter-final against the Highlanders at Kings Park next Saturday, before a trip to Christchurch to face the ‘Saders in a semi if they do overcome the men from Otago.

    The showpiece on August 2 (again if they have somehow vaulted the prior hurdle) will very likely also be abroad for them unless the comfortably log-topping ‘Tahs have been upset in their Sydney semi.

    As captain Bismarck du Plessis sensibly noted after their classic 34-10 Newlands strangulation job on the Stormers, they will not make the mistake of thinking beyond next Saturday.

    It is a particularly wise approach when you consider that the Highlanders were one of the teams to wreck their top-two aspirations this year by romping to a 34-18 triumph in Durban in late April.

    If the visitors from New Zealand – who will at least from a Sharks point of view be disadvantaged by a long-haul flight for the clash -- want to clutch at another good omen, it is that the last time they crossed the Indian Ocean to our shores for a straight knockout fixture, they beat a Stormers team of their short-lived “Men in Black” heyday 33-18 in a Cape Town semi in 1999.

    Well-nigh humiliated in the Durban meeting a few weeks back, the Sharks will probably feel that lightning ought not to strike twice and they will be much better prepared mentally this time; on the prior occasion the hosts looked stale and just not properly up for it.

    The April game, for instance, was marked by the “arrival” in the Highlanders’ midfield of the new Tongan-born powerhouse Malakai Fekitoa, who later went on to earn maiden All Blacks caps against England in the June window.

    No doubt the Sharks will be more mindful this time of the need to close down his channel with some purpose.

    One thing that will be keeping Sharks fans reasonably optimistic about their title prospects is the intelligent and committed manner in which they squeezed the life out of the hitherto in-form Stormers, in a game that ended a costly little sequence of two derby losses for the black-and-whites.

    “It isn’t beautiful rugby, but it’s rugby rugby,” noted former Springbok captain Bob Skinstad, who has represented both franchises with distinction, in television commentary as he lauded the Sharks’ muscular commitment to keeping the home side at bay and also catching them on the break towards the end of the tetchy encounter.

    Most of us knew exactly what he meant.

    What is also clear is that desperation to finally land that elusive crown is driving the Sharks stubbornly onward, even as some senior bones start to ominously creak through the relentless workload.

    Some of their ranks, after all, still harbour unpleasant memories of the 2007 Durban final, when Bryan Habana darted infield for a late, late winning Bulls touchdown following the sounding of an infamously weak (at the time) Kings Park siren.

    For players like Frans Steyn, JP Pietersen and Ryan Kankowski, who started that all-SA showpiece seven years ago, and bench customers Bismarck du Plessis and the currently injured Tendai Mtawarira, 2014 still presents an opportunity – even if it must involve three immensely tough further matches – to rectify that nightmare.

    Speaking of Pietersen and Du Plessis, they are among key Springbok figures on whom medical verdicts over the next few days will be anxiously awaited after the Newlands battle.

    Utility back Pietersen appeared to suffer at least some manner of concussion in a horrible head clash with Duane Vermeulen, whilst hooker Du Plessis – in the thick of things during the Sharks’ heroic defending for long stretches of the second half – was often treated on the field for an apparent neck problem even as he typically refused to withdraw from combat until very late in the match.

    The presence of the big unit in the No 2 jersey, both as player and leader, will be very important against the Highlanders: he was too obviously missed in the last meeting between the two, and sitting out this one just seems unthinkable if you are a Sharks devotee ...

    *Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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