It is often said that the Super 14 is more like an ultra-marathon than a rugby competition, and if that is so, then good money should go on the Sharks achieving something that looked highly unlikely a couple of weeks ago.
Gavin Rich writes for Superrugby that all season the Sharks struggled to put together a performance to satisfy their coaches, with Dick Muir’s promising after each game that the side would finally put it together the following week. It just kept failing to materialise, however, which is why so many lost faith.
Then, almost as if they were playing a cat and mouse game all along to vindicate those of us who believe the Sharks are always most dangerous when written off, they stood up when it really mattered. In his role as Supersport studio comments man, former Springbok scrumhalf Garth Wright was spot on when he said two weeks ago: “That try by Odwa Ndungane might be the most valuable of the entire Sharks’ season and change the course of this competition”.
The try in question was the one two minutes from time that clinched the Sharks the bonus point against the Vodacom Cheetahs. A bonus point was a non-negotiable at the time, and the Sharks, knowing their challenge was just two minutes from being ended, were desperate. It was time to stand up and be counted, and that is exactly what they did, creating a try for Ndungane which was every bit as miraculous as the one which the Vodacom Bulls scored through Bryan Habana in last year’s final.
The impact on the Sharks’ self-belief was massive, and it was abundantly evident as they smashed the Chiefs with as impressive a display as any that they have produced in the past two seasons. They raced to the bonus point after just 51 minutes, so ending the brave challenge of the Vodacom Stormers, who by failing to pick up a bonus against the Lions earlier in the day effectively ended the chances of their being two South African semi-finalists.
With all due respect to the magnificent Stormers, the local side that has the best chance of going all the way in this competition was the one that advanced. The Stormers built so much of their challenge around defence, and the high tackle count of previous matches had to have an effect, and there were times in the second half in Johannesburg when they looked out on their feet.
The jitters of the first half against the Lions showed the Stormers to perhaps be a bit short of the experience needed to challenge seriously for the trophy, and while it could well be a different story next year, it is reasonable to assume that a semifinal might just have been a bridge too far for the team that has now gone seven matches unbeaten.
By contrast, the Sharks look to be a team that took the middle stages of this ultra-marathon easily, like Bruce Fordyce used to, and are now hitting the deciding kilometres with fuel to burn. They will not go to Sydney for the semi-final lacking self-belief or scarred by their recent defeat there, and some key changes to combinations, such as the addition of bulk to the loose-forwards, have paid dividends since their last visit to Sydney.
Whereas the Sharks have momentum, the Crusaders appear to have lost theirs, and are no longer the shoo-in for the title that they were for most of the past three and a half months. If you want to look for a dangerous team other than the Sharks, then tip the Hurricanes, for they got in through the back door and, with just the Cook Strait to be negotiated in their trip to the semi-final instead of the potentially more arduous and debilitating journey across the Tasman or Indian Ocean, they must feel they have landed with their backsides in soft butter.
Although they lost to the Blues in their final league match, they have the runners and game breakers to beat the Crusaders. If they do, and the Sharks beat the Waratahs, we might all be heading to Durban for the decider on Saturday week.
For the Stormers it was a case of so near yet so far, but their achievement in remaining in contention until the last game of a competition where they lost the opening three fixtures was astounding. They can console themselves with the thought that they will start the Super 14 next year unbeaten in their last seven matches and with a couple of tweaks to personnel here and there, they could well win the Super 14.
The Sharks and Stormers were the top two South African teams by some distance, but the Vodacom Bulls showed in their last few matches that it is not inconceivable that next year there will be three local challengers for the title. The Bulls ended the season in style with a 60-20 demolition of the under-achieving Cheetahs, so maybe they will be back to challenge again next year.
So too no doubt will several other teams that either showed pleasing progress during the course of the competition, or who just missed out, such as the Blues, who beat the Hurricanes in their last match to set it up for South Africa before the Stormers faltered just when destiny was in their hands.
Blues 19 Hurricanes 17
Western Force 29 Brumbies 22
Crusaders 14 Highlanders 26
Reds 11 Waratahs 18
Stormers 22 Lions 13
Bulls 60 Cheetahs 20
Sharks 47 Chiefs 25