Johannesburg - Sharks coach Robert du Preez was able to
console himself after the Super Rugby quarter-final defeat in Christchurch that
he is in charge of a young and growing team but his analysis and reflection on
where it went wrong for his men just needs to engage the rewind button to this
time last year.
Complaints about the refereeing didn’t dominate the
discourse this time, his team had much further to travel, and the end score was
far more one-sided, according to SuperSport.com.
But otherwise where it went wrong for the Sharks was the
same as it was in 2017 - they finished eighth and they had to travel to play
the top team at the start of a play-off phase that was always going to be a
challenge of Everest proportions.
Just to refresh memories, it was a late penalty from Lions
wing Ruan Combrinck that prevented the Sharks from advancing past the
quarterfinal phase 12 months ago.
The Sharks were the better team for much of
the Emirates Airlines Park battle, and the refereeing decisions, which went
against the Lions too, didn’t help the visitors.
What really counted against the Sharks then, and it was more
so obviously this past weekend, was that they finished eighth, and had to
travel away for the knock-outs.
Take Newlands and Brisbane out of the equation
(okay, there was also last year’s final), and there are not too many venues
that have delivered play-off victories for teams that have had to travel.
The Sharks did have a chance last year because they were
effectively playing a derby. Going to Johannesburg, which involves an hour
flight, made the quarterfinal much more of a 50/50 game than perhaps it
deserved to be for the Sharks considering they had finished so far off the pace
and the Lions had topped the overall log.
That is of course the counter-argument to those who attack
the Super Rugby play-off system on the basis that travel leaves visiting teams
at such a disadvantage. Should a team that finishes eighth in what last year
was an 18 team competition but is now a 15 team competition even be playing in
It doesn’t make much sense if you consider that the eighth
ranked team is effectively in the bottom half of the log. And that to get there
the Sharks won less than half their games. Look at it like that and it is
entirely right that the top teams get given a big advantage.
Whether it is good for the competition that the quality of
the showpiece end of the season is impacted by fatigue is another story. It
would make more sense if, should SANZAAR persist with a 15 team format beyond
2019, for the play-offs to revert to a four team affair.
In other words, go
straight into the semi-finals, or at least allow the top two finishers to sit
out the opening week of the play-offs and get the next four to play an
Du Preez admitted that fatigue did play a part in his team’s
error-ridden performance in Christchurch and the magnitude (30 points) of the
“Yes, we were a bit tired,” admitted Du Preez at the
post-match press conference after some prompting from Kiwi journalists who
noted that “there looked like there were some tired legs out there”.
Du Preez added that his team was “not quite there” when it
came to taking opportunities and being clinical - the Sharks did miss a few
chances in both halves - but then agreed that it was the story of his team’s
“We can’t keep the basics going. But I guess that is the
sign of a young growing team. I am proud of the effort of the boys,” he said.
He was right to laud his men for effort. Going to
Christchurch for a quarterfinal is not for the faint hearted and ultimately the
end scoreline did flatter a Crusaders side that perhaps was short of top gear
once they took a handy early lead.
The Sharks did show glimpses through the
match of potential to be contenders. But to be contenders will require the
consistency that has been lacking and which prevented them from going into the
knock-outs with a favourable draw.
If the Sharks want a chance to lift silverware while the
competition is being played to its current format the objective should be a
simple one and the message was the same in Christchurch as the one that was
drummed out at the end of last season - you have to perform in the regular
season and thus secure home ground advantage in the play-offs.
With the exception of those occasions when teams from the
same country end up playing off against each other, home ground advantage is
bigger in Super Rugby than it is in any other rugby competition. Playing a
crack team like Crusaders after a long flight across the time-zones is always
going to be a bridge too far and there will always be an air of inevitability
about such matches.
The Sharks did make the final under John Plumtree in 2012
doing it the hard way - they beat the Reds in Brisbane and the Stormers in Cape
Town. But even for them it was a bridge too far as being made to travel for the
final against the Chiefs that year left them well short and the decider was an
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