Five long weeks ago, the Sharks’ first opponents on tour were the Hurricanes in Wellington, and before the Durban team begin the trek home on Sunday, the Hurricanes will have toured South Africa, returned to New Zealand and played a home game.
By Mike Greenaway, writing for IOL , in Sydney
That gives some perspective to the exacting travel schedule South African Super 14 teams undergo every second year (one year they play four overseas games, the next five), and it is why SA teams should not be harshly judged when, for at least one match on tour (usually the third week of a four-week tour or fourth of a “five-weeker”), they hit the doldrums and cannot maintain the intensity.
The first week on tour is fine, when despite jet lag, the tour is new and fresh, and most of that enthusiasm continues into the second week.
And the final week of a tour is usually a good one because players are excited about going home and are happy to wind themselves up for one last lash.
The Sharks’ 2008 tour fits neatly into this profile.
Though they were lucky to get away with a draw in the opener against the Hurricanes (remember, the referee not to referring an in-goal melee to the TMO when the Hurricanes seemed to have scored), the Sharks were the better team that night and ought to have won the game long before that last-minute drama.
The Highlanders were beaten in week two, but only after the Sharks withstood a spirited comeback by the Otago team.
Match three will be remembered as Bryce’s Big Night Out, but also when the Sharks’ lack of leadership support for Johann Muller and loss of experience was most keenly felt as they let referee Lawrence get under their skin.
When Lawrence began his “Hey, everybody look at me” show, the Sharks were not mature enough to simply indulge him and knuckle down to the task of finishing off the Brumbies, who were down and out at half-time, but comfortable winners in the end. To have lost that game after having played their best half of the season was criminal.
In match four, against the Waratahs, the Sharks did not pitch up for work. With hindsight, you could see it coming. After three weeks of urgency there was a sub-conscious dip in concentration and intensity.
And in the Super 14, when you have one team’s collective eye drifting off the ball, and the other team “in the mood”, there is only going to be one result – particularly with the Waratahs’ pack being one of the biggest in the competition and the Sharks fielding their lightest eight for many a day.
Muller’s leadership was also conspicuous by its absence, because of his calf injury.
In the tenth minute of that match, Frederic Michalak’s Sharks career ended abruptly. He was popular and his humility and unassuming nature were at complete odds with the celebrity status he enjoys in France. He was just getting used to the Sharks’ style of play, and vice versa, when he injured knee ligaments.
The Sharks were always going to be good against the Crusaders. In fact they saved their best for last and deserved at least two points out of the match.
The Sharks forwards played out of their skins, and again it was the odd silly mistake or bad decision that cost the visitors dearly. We are talking about the type of errors that last year’s team would not have made with all those old and wise heads.
When you replace experience with youth, this type of thing happens and there is little the coaching staff can do about it.
The good thing about the way this tour finished is that the Sharks players, to a man, felt they had the measure of the Crusaders, and that if they have to go back for a semifinal, they believe they can beat them.
After the game, Dick Muir summed up the Crusaders match nicely: “It was another grind. In fact the season has been one long grind in which we have battled to get to the level of last year.
“But there is light at the end of the tunnel. I have good feeling now that we could end up peaking at the right time,” he said.Tweet