Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
It was just beginning to shape up invitingly as a potential “early final” to Super Rugby 2020.
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Current overall table-toppers and sparkling entertainers the Sharks at home to the champions of the last three years, the Crusaders, on Saturday, May 23 ... what’s not to like?
When the competition came to a shuddering halt almost a fortnight ago due to the global ravages of the coronavirus, there were already very promising signs that the clash - in round 17 of the 18 in ordinary season - was going to have tons at stake.
While there was still scope aplenty for things to change, it would be difficult to dispute that both teams had built formidable heads of steam by the time the stoppage came, just ahead of the midway mark in the conference-driven phase.
The Sharks sported six wins from seven outings and 24 points, and the legendary ‘Saders were breathing right down their necks (as were the slightly surprise-package Brumbies) with five wins from six and 23 points.
It is already a little ominous, to the rest of the pack, that the Cantabrians have begun well, their only slip-up to date having been to the Chiefs in Hamilton back in round two: they are certainly not averse historically to still winning Super Rugby off a conspicuously sluggish start.
At the same time, I am probably not alone in strongly feeling that the Sharks are (or will it end up being “were”?) going to stay in lofty territory for the remainder of ordinary season - not least because their main, Australasian tour is already behind them with an excellent three wins from four.
A reminder, against that backdrop, of what was left for Sean Everitt’s charges, in roster order, following the intended but cancelled home encounter with the Chiefs last Saturday: a bye this weekend, then Lions (away), Waratahs (home), Stormers (away), Brumbies (home), Lions (home), Jaguares (away), Bulls (away), Crusaders (home) and then an inconvenient, it must be admitted, last-round bye.
When the suspension came, they had five home games still to negotiate, and four away, with only one of those - Jaguares in Buenos Aires - being outside this country.
The Crusaders had an even split of five home and five away among their 10 fixtures yet to negotiate, including foreign travel to play the Rebels in Melbourne and both the Lions and Sharks in South Africa.
That huge Kings Park match-up would almost certainly be especially critical from a Sharks point of view, given the perils of their being the only team not in action tournament-wide on the last weekend.
The ‘Saders, win or lose in Durban, would still travel home knowing that another four or five log points potentially beckoned for them in their closing home derby date - a revenge opportunity for much earlier in the campaign – with the Chiefs.
But that visit to the Shark Tank might very well still have been a definitive one in ensuring healthy – or not quite so palatable, depending on the result - seedings for both outfits in the knockout phase.
The Crusaders did not play the Sharks in Durban last season; the teams shared a 21-21 nail-biter in Christchurch in early May, the visitors denied a stirring victory only by flyhalf Mitch Hunt’s converted try right at the death.
Their previous tussle had also been in Christchurch - a thumping 40-10 quarter-final win by the Crusaders in 2018.
The New Zealand-based icons’ last visit to Kings Park had been as far back as March 2016, when they outfoxed their hosts 19-14 ... that four-year gap would have been simply another reason to relish the intended, upcoming encounter in 2020.
Smart money at this stage, regrettably, suggests that the competition is highly unlikely to resume this year, especially after Sanzaar CEO Andy Marinos stated that resumption would have to take place within five weeks of the suspension for that to be feasible.
South Africa is only about to start a mandatory nationwide community lockdown for the next 21 days, leaving desperately little scope after that for Super Rugby teams to get back into competitive gear with indecent haste - there are also no guarantees at all that major sport will resume soon after the varying-length, initial lockdowns around the globe.
Perhaps the slimmest of hopes is that Super Rugby 2020 will return in a greatly condensed form ... perhaps even leaving the possibility that Sharks v Crusaders instead becomes, somehow, the showpiece itself?
But don’t stake your house on it.
We may well have sacrificed the champagne meeting between these high-riding foes …
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