Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town – Simply
playing the Crusaders, and in their own Christchurch stronghold, is a
formidable enough gig ... the worst you could have, really.
that the lowest-seeded team for the knockout phase of conference-format Super
Rugby has never gone on to win the Super Rugby title only adds to the theme of
implausibility, if you like, regarding the Sharks’ tenuous, ongoing credentials
in the 2018 competition as they weigh up Saturday’s quarter-final as the pronounced
Is it a
reward, or is it really more like purgatory, to sneak that eighth and final
place for the finals series and know you are headed off on yet another
long-haul flight overseas, likely by sheer historical weight of evidence to be
experiencing your last match anyway?
there seemed no especially animated whooping and dancing by either Sharks
players or fans at a sparsely-populated, soggy Kings Park last Saturday after
they duly confirmed the need among the team to show their passports a day later
– courtesy of an industrial victory over the weakened Jaguares.
the enduring controversy around conference winners having to bag the top three
seedings - quite regardless of the overall situation in log-points terms - there is also the justifiable argument over whether, in a 15-team competition,
it is appropriate for more than half of them to advance to a swollen climax
phase seemingly designed more for extra live television opportunities than a
whole lot else.
the respective ordinary-season performances of the top-placed ‘Saders and
eighth-ending Sharks and you are entitled to question whether the visitors warrant
being on the same park at this advanced stage.
Crusaders, from a notably more difficult conference as well, earned 14 wins and
63 points (77 tries, 39 against), as opposed to the Sharks’ seven wins and 36
points (49 tries, 57 against).
at least there is no doubting the credibility of the Durban outfit’s seedings
spot: they are genuinely eighth, which is more than you can say for either of
the Lions or Waratahs, beefed into second and third respectively by structural
stipulation above the right to be there on a points basis.
also a few compelling enough reasons for the Sharks, under their hard taskmaster
Robert du Preez, not to simply run up a white flag in mental terms before they
have even taken to the pitch in Christchurch.
One is that
most of their party should know, deep down, that they ought to have delivered a
better finish than eighth this year, given what they’ve usually been able to
offer as a line-up on paper.
knockout phase – the possibility of a spirited run in it – does amount to an
opportunity for atonement.
that, though, the Sharks have also been comfortably the best South African side
in terms of competitiveness against New Zealand-specific foes this season,
which is at least some cause for believing they can cause a tremendous upset
against the mighty Cantabrians on Saturday.
three of the four relevant games, and even the agonising, late 38-37 reverse to
the Hurricanes at Napier deserves to be up among the others as candidates for
their shortlist of “performances of the season” – they were wretchedly unlucky
also the handy (and rare) little matter of “been there, done that” for the
Sharks when it comes to prior knowledge of prevailing against the Crusaders
away: they did so in league play against the odds in 2014.
remarkable match marked by their bloody-minded desire to succeed despite the
red-carding of Jean Deysel for a stamping incident in the 17th
minute, the Sharks nosed it out 30-25 after a late try from Kyle Cooper, the
replacement hooker who now plies his trade with Newcastle Falcons in England.
said, though, the portents from a statistical point of view hardly look bright
for the Sharks when you study the fortunes of the lowest-seeded side annually
since the advent of the conference system – and a KO phase involving more than
just semis and a final -- in 2011.
the Sharks have been the lowest-seeded qualifying team themselves on as many as
five of the eight occasions now; they seem to make a speciality of scuttling
through the gate.
customarily, the lowest qualifying team bows out at the very first attempt in
the knockouts (the effective quarter-final), although the 2012 Sharks,
interestingly, were a notably gutsy exception.
John Plumtree’s coaching tenure, they defied both common sense and medical
expectation by bouncing back and forth across the Indian Ocean during the
playoffs to advance to the showpiece against the Chiefs (where they were duly
obliterated 37-6 as travel fatigue took a remorseless hold at last).
First they had
beaten the Reds in Brisbane (30-17), then heroically downed the Stormers a few
days later in their Newlands den (26-19) before it all got a bit too much for
them back across the globe once more in Hamilton.
Can the Sharks’
class of 2018 show such true grit?
will at least start to become apparent on Saturday …
*Here is the list of post-2010 occasions
(start of conference format) in which the lowest-seeded team has succumbed at
the first knockout-phase hurdle:
2017: Lost quarter-final 23-21 to Lions in Johannesburg
2016: Lost quarter-final 41-0 to Hurricanes in Wellington
2014: Lost quarter-final 31-27 to Lions in Johannesburg
2013: Lost quarter-final 15-13 to Brumbies in Canberra
2011: Lost quarter-final 36-8 to Crusaders in Christchurch
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