Let’s get into the mood for the big game by remembering the Sharks’ previous triumphs (and failures) in Super Rugby playoff games over the last 12 years.
The Sharks (or Natal, back in those days) first qualified for the semi-finals of the Super 12 in the competition’s inaugural year, 1996. Finishing fourth on the table with 33 points (from only 6 wins and 5 losses) they were clear underdogs going into the semi-final against the table-topping Reds at their Ballymore stronghold. Not for the first time (or the last), the banana boys went on to record a memorable victory against the odds, emerging as 43-25 victors. The stand-out performance on the night came from none other than left wing Jacobus Ferdinand “Cabous” van der Westhuizen, who scored three of Natal’s seven tries.
Fans will remember 1997 for the horrendous “beauty pageant” jersey design that Natal adopted; the black shirt had a diagonal white stripe reminiscent of the sashes dished out to Miss World runners up everywhere. The campaign got off to a perfect start when debutant Gavin Lawless memorably scored half a ton on his own in the opening game against the Highlanders. Natal only managed 5 wins out of 11, but courtesy of two draws and plenty bonus points, they again snuck into the semis in fourth spot. Coming up against the Blues (who had only lost a single game in the round-robin stage) they went down in a 55-36, 8 try to 6 thriller that sounded far more comprehensive than it actually was, considering we were basically blown out of the game by the referee. My memory is somewhat shaky, but I recall Fijian winger Joeli Vidiri doing most of the damage that day. Funny thing is, we all remember him as huge, but Frans Steyn is bigger than he was!
The following season, the newly named Coastal Sharks won 7 out of 11 games to go one better and end third on the table. A new force was emerging in the competition, though, after the Blues had taken the title in the first two seasons. The Crusaders from Canterbury finished in second spot that year and it was again on the back of an incredibly dodgy refereeing display that the eventual champions overcame the Sharks in the semi-final 36 points to 32. The Sharks outscored the hosts on that day by 5 tries to four but it was not enough to see them through to their second final.
The Sharks were hampered by a combination of senior players departing and poor coaching appointments over the next two seasons. but were back with a bang in 2001, now wearing grey jerseys and securing a home semi-final for the first time in their history. Finishing second with 8 wins from 11, they hosted the Cats in the semi-final in Durban. Fans will remember the resulting 5 try to zero, 30-12 drubbing as “the Butch James show” as the mercurial pivot was in absolutely untouchable form, playing a vital role in virtually all of the tries the Sharks ran in.
2002 through 2005 were dark years indeed for the Sharks as we wallowed in the mire of the “Kevin Putt era”. A pair of finishes right near the bottom of the ladder (never quite at the bottom, thanks to the Cats) led into a more promising seventh-spot finish in 2004, as the team enjoyed one of their best tours in history, only to go and and lose every single match they played at home. 2005 saw the Sharks finish stone last, with a solitary victory over the Brumbies in Dick Muir’s first game in charge the only ray of light. In that game, we witnessed a superb long-range try from a young scrumhalf by the name of Pienaar, the first of many.
Muir’s first full season in 2006 saw the side narrowly miss out on a fourth-placed finish thanks to the Stormers’ tame capitulation in the final round-robin fixture against the Bulls. 2007, as we all know, saw the Sharks top the table and host a semi-final against the Blues in Durban. The Sharks prevailed in a 34-18, 3 try to 2 performance which saw them rampant in the first half, yet forced to dig deep as the Aucklanders came back hard in the third quarter. It was a big win, particularly when looking back at the pain that the Blues inflicted on us in play-off games in the early years of the competition.
What will the score be when the Sharks play their first-ever semi-final against the Waratahs in 2008? A single log-point separates the sides at the end of the round-robin, with both sides having won 9 from 13, with a single draw and three loses. Home-ground advantage favours the Tahs, but the Sharks have played the better rugby in the last fortnight. Or will the specter of the 25-10 thrashing handed out at the Sydney Football Stadium a month ago be enough to ensure the Sharks don’t produce another memorable upset?
We’ve never lost a semi-final on Australian soil! Sharks Forever!Tweet