Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town – Until around 01:20 last Sunday, a time when it can be difficult to decide whether you are a defiant late-night person or an extraordinarily early bird, the Sharks would have been harbouring high hopes of a mere hour’s flight to Johannesburg for a Vodacom Super Rugby quarter-final against the Lions this Saturday.
Wishing for that development might seem strange to some … after all, only at the start of this month they had been near-humiliated 37-10 by those same domestic foes at Emirates Airline Park in ordinary season.
But that’s the point: Gary Gold’s charges would have placed a high emphasis on avenging that result, or at the very least going a long way to ensuring there would be no repeat of the lop-sidedness of the score-line that day.
They would have thought: “This is knockout rugby; clean slate … anything’s possible.”
Extra motivation would have been gathered from the happy development of skirting a dreaded long-haul flight through time zones to Australasia. (The trip to the Big Smoke? Pah, that’s barely enough time to down a drink and devour the in-flight pretzels before the seatbelt sign comes back on for landing.)
Instead that relative nightmare has turned stark reality, and the Sharks have scuttled – or even possibly trudged in some cases -- off, presumably via tiresome change-overs at OR Tambo and in already faraway Sydney, for an alternative date with the Hurricanes at their often windy Wellington “Cake Tin”.
And all because the debatably under-resourced Lions fell short by one, lousy unconverted try of securing top berth overall as they succumbed 34-22 to the Jaguares in Buenos Aires at an unfriendly South African time on Sunday morning and failed to land the lone log point required.
Whatever your thoughts on the wisdom or otherwise of Lions head coach Johan Ackermann’s selection policy for the final round of pre-knockout season, be assured of one thing: the ‘Canes would have been positively elated by the outcome in Argentina.
It was the cherry on top of their own “Super Saturday”, in which they had stunned seven-time title winners the Crusaders 35-10 in their Christchurch stronghold to secure unlikely supremacy in the collectively mighty New Zealand conference.
Then snatching premier spot, competition-wide, as well? Plenty of the Hurricanes’ personnel must have had to pinch themselves to confirm that truth.
Let’s not lose sight of the fact that the yellow-jerseyed outfit can now be said to have teed up their golden “reprieve” opportunity for events last season, when they similarly and far more convincingly topped the overall ladder after ordinary season – a dazzling 14 points clear of anyone else.
After breezing through a home semi-final 29-9 against the Brumbies, things came cruelly crashing down for them in the Cake Tin showpiece against the Highlanders, who won 21-14 to simultaneously pip their opponents to becoming first-time winners of Super Rugby.
A harder KO route looked likely for the ‘Canes a few days ago in their atonement quest in 2016 … but suddenly the seas have parted to give them an invitingly favourable gateway toward the silverware again.
Whether they do go on to claim the elusive crown remains to be seen, but it is desperately hard to see them stumbling at the Sharks hurdle in the quarter-final, and the feeling in their camp is sure to doggedly be: “Let’s not stuff up our title shot this time.”
Meanwhile the Durban faithful may understandably protest, in a gee-up bid for their travelling underdog troops, that the Sharks thumped the Hurricanes 32-15 at Kings Park earlier this season -- a display which contained periods of some of their most irresistible attacking rugby of the entire campaign thus far.
But the vibe in New Zealand on that score, judging by what I have read in the media there this week, is that the ‘Canes succumbed to fatal complacency on that occasion, a week after they had given the Lions their worst comeuppance of the season (beating them 50-17 in Jo’burg); the view is that lightning ought not to strike twice.
In other words, the Sharks’ ordinary-season victory serves as a fillip more than an impediment to the Hurricanes for the more critical encounter this weekend.
Another glimmer of hope is that the black-and-whites, every now and then, dig extraordinarily deep – though more often in the earlier part of the always-fatiguing competition – to eke out wins on NZ soil against vast odds.
They did so back on April 22, for example, in beating the Highlanders 15-14 in Dunedin, although that was significantly aided by Jason Emery’s 12th-minute red card for the hosts, and such triumphs are not exactly a routine occurrence.
The Sharks have done pretty well, when all is said and done, to get this far in 2016 after perhaps the biggest stinker in roster terms of all the more established franchises in Super Rugby this year and another hoodoo this season when it comes to injuries to senior players.
Believe me, I would love a Sharks upset on Saturday (09:35 SA time). But I confess I won’t be staking a solitary, hard-earned cent on it.
This one may only turn out tantalisingly tight, and in the balance near the siren, if the Hurricanes aren’t allowed to build any meaningful scoreboard pressure, as they say, from reasonably early on. But if they do strike quickly … ouch.
The wind seems blissfully behind the aptly-named Hurricanes, at a very opportune time for them, whilst for the Sharks it’s all about coping - or trying to - with salty spray in their faces.
*Sharks’ record in knockout fixtures played overseas since advent of conference systems in 2011: played four, won one, lost three. The results: Lost 38-6 to Crusaders, Christchurch (2014 semi-final), beat Reds 30-17, Brisbane (2012 ‘quarter-final’), lost 37-6 to Chiefs, Hamilton (2012 final), lost 36-8 to Crusaders, Nelson (2011 ‘quarter-final’).
*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing