Seeing as the format of the Super 14 is coming under review from SANZAR shortly, perhaps some consideration should be given to installing a two-week break between the final league game of the competition and the start of the playoffs.
Gavin Rich writes on Superrugby that only once in the 13-year history of the competition has a team travelled across the ocean to win a playoff game. That was the Highlanders, who went to Cape Town in 1999 and beat the Stormers. But it will be recalled that the Stormers appeared to have their attention deflected, with newspapers running reports on the morning of the match of a threatened players strike.
Those who have travelled between South Africa and Australasia will also tell you that the journey westwards, back into time, is a lot less fatiguing than the one in the opposite direction, where you arrive in a time zone eight or ten hours ahead of the one you have left.
Not that this helped the Blues and the Crusaders last year, both teams comprehensively losing their semifinals against the Sharks and the Bulls respectively.
Putting an extra week between the round-robin and playoff would lengthen the tournament, and create additional pressure on an already crowded schedule, but it would make it fairer and is a more intelligent suggestion than the one to increase the number of teams in the playoffs.
But if there are readers who think this angle is a way of finding an excuse for the poor Sharks show in the semifinal against the Waratahs, think again. The Sharks were soundly beaten, and just as the Crusaders may have duped us one way by taking their foot off the accelerator in some games towards the end of the league stages, so the Sharks may have flattered only to deceive in their last two matches.
The Chiefs had nothing to play for in their final league match in Durban, whereas the Sharks had everything. And it is not as if the Chiefs have ever travelled well. Before that the Sharks scored five tries against the Cheetahs, but the Cheetahs hardly boast the best defensive record in the competition.
So, with the benefit of hindsight, why were we all so confident the Sharks would advance? Ultimately you have to say that although there is a lot of pedigree on paper, those players we placed so much store on, such as World Cup-winners Frans Steyn and JP Pietersen, had poor seasons by their standards, and had the Sharks not scored 11 tries in their last two games, their try scoring record for the season would have been abysmal.
Much though I have always rated him as a coach, I do think Dick Muir must take part of the blame, for his backline was never allowed to settle, and when he had a chance to retain a unit that was at last starting to look slick, he returned Steyn to inside centre and left Brad Barritt on the sidelines.
What was an even bigger mistake was starting with a flank in Epi Taione who had not played any rugby for seven weeks. The big Tongan made several mistakes in the first half that cost the Sharks any chance of picking up momentum, but you could hardly blame him. I doubt he has played more than 40 minutes for the Sharks in his life, and here he was playing in a semifinal.
The Sharks were below par in the semi, and that was the story of their season. Now that the mirage of the two match burst against the Cheetahs and Chiefs has been seen for what it was, perhaps we should return to the original explanation that we had for the Sharks’ ailment – they lacked the clinical edge and the patience they exhibited when the experienced core of John Smit, Percy Montgomery, Butch James and Bob Skinstad were part of the group.
We are told that Smit is available for the Sharks again, but that there are people who are standing in his way. If that is so, then hopefully whoever these people are will have watched the semifinal, and seen the reality that everyone else did. If Smit wants to play for the Sharks again, then it would be madness not to re-employ him. The Sharks DO need him.Tweet