The Sharks’ four-match Australasian tour will define their Super 14 campaign.
The Sharks are widely acknowledged to be amongst the favourites in the tournament, but they’ll know that a good start, with victories over the Stormers and Lions, will mean nothing if they capitulate on their Australasian tour.
Too long have South African sides been content with third and fourth placed finishes, then suffered the inevitable defeat away to Australian or New Zealand opposition in the semi-final. This has been as a direct result of their poor form on tour.
To host a home final the Sharks will probably have to win three of their four matches on the road. Of their five tour matches in 2008, they drew one, won one and lost three – which ultimately meant they travelled to Sydney for a semi-final against the Waratahs (they lost 28-13) instead of hosting one at Kings Park, where their chances of victory would have been exponentially improved.
And while that run of results would have been bitterly disappointing, they would hopefully have learnt from their failings on tour and remedied those.
When looking at their opposition, it is not inconceivable that they could become the first South African side to win a clean sweep of matches on tour.
The Chiefs, whom the Sharks face on Saturday, will be low on confidence after losing their first two matches. And while they remain a dangerous unit when the opposition opt for a looser approach, they have looked distinctly vulnerable when teams kick well tactically and are patient in their phase play.
The Blues have been decimated by injuries and won’t be the force they usually are in Auckland, while the Reds and Western Force have shown nothing to suggest they will trouble the Sharks.
A good platform is essential ahead of their return to Kings Park, where they face three of last year’s semi-finalists – the Crusaders, Waratahs and Hurricanes. The Sharks have a formidable record in Durban, having lost just one of their last 14 matches there – the last defeat coming in the Super 14 final against the Bulls in 2007.
A top place finish is a distinct reality for the Sharks, but that goal can only be realised if they do well on tour. Third or fourth place must be viewed as failure given their tour schedule, their home fixtures and the quality of their squad.
By Ryan Vrede