RYAN VREDE wonders if the Sharks didn’t play their final a fortnight ago?
The Sharks will feel that their 16-12 semi-final victory over the Bulls was the defining performance of their season. Certainly the manner in which they blunted the defending champions at Kings Park was inspirational.
They bullied them at the tackle point and in doing so never allowed them any momentum. Robbed of the platform to play the multi-phase game that has become their trademark, the Bulls looked impotent. The scoreline was flattering to them given the wealth of possession and territory the Sharks enjoyed.
On attack the Sharks were physical, intelligent, patient but not penetrative or incisive. They often squandered good scoring opportunities which, if taken, would have had the scoreboard reflecting their utter dominance.
It was undoubtedly their finest performance of the year, made even more notable by the fact that they achieved the victory without their inspirational leader John Smit, with a side vastly inferior in terms of experience in play-off matches, and against a unit boasting key Springboks.
They explored a depth of resolve I haven’t seen from a Sharks side for years, and exhibited a level of commitment and self-belief to complement and amplify their talent. It was an epic performance.
The pertinent question now is whether they can replicate that wonderful showing. Champion sides can. The Sharks need look no further back than 2007 for examples.
The Bulls, on the back of Derick Hougaard’s excellent goal-kicking, defeated the Crusaders in the semi-final, then struck in the dying minutes of the final at Kings Park to secure their first Super 14 title.
The Springboks romped to victory against Argentina in the World Cup semi-final later that year, then reverted to a more pragmatic approach in the final. While the opposition dictated that the methods differed significantly, the performances were equally dynamic, equally clinical.
In their memorable double season in 2009, the Bulls mimicked their feats of two years previous to oust the Crusaders in the semis and Chiefs in the final of the Super 14, then battle through a brutal Currie Cup play-off against Western Province at Newlands, winning with a touchline penalty in the 78th minute, then claiming the domestic title with a polished performance against the Cheetahs.
Herein lies the challenge for the Sharks. The performance against the Bulls will be greatly devalued, certainly in terms of its psychological benefits going forward, if they fail in the final.
The Stormers are at a similar point in their evolution, although their desire for success will be further fuelled by the disappointment of defeat in the Super 14 final earlier this year. They’ll be acutely aware of the importance of victory beyond the obvious instant pleasure of breaking their nine-year title drought.
In every way it is a battle of South Africa’s great pretenders. Which one progresses from shallow posturing to sustained success rests heavily on Saturday’s result.