MARK KEOHANE, in his Business Day column, says play-offs are all about momentum – and all the momentum this weekend will be with the Sharks and Crusaders.
The Stormers’ and Chiefs’ reward for claiming the top two spots in the league stages was a home semi-final and a week’s breather in between games. But what was supposed to be a favour for the consistency of the season could be the curse that ends the Super Rugby season for the hosts of both semi-finals.
Form is definitely with the Sharks and Crusaders and form is all that will matter this weekend. League clashes count for nothing when the teams meet in a match in which there is no second chance.
The Stormers, in 2010 and 2011, were the best defensive team in the competition, yet losing in a final and a semi-final is the return of a good side and not a champion one.
This season they’ve exceeded expectation. Their defensive record is unrivalled and so too is their lack of attack. The players have shown impeccable discipline in respecting the coach’s strategic approach to what best suits the strengths of the team. The squad has been depleted through injury, yet the resolve of the reserve players has been strengthened.
You have to applaud the Stormers’ campaign, regardless of whether the climax is a first home final and a trophy or a second successive home semi-final defeat.
A year ago there was an expectation because of momentum and player availability. This year needs more perspective, even if it may bring no comfort.
The Stormers have the respect of every team in the competition and they are now recognised as among the most powerful in the league. It is a respect that has been earned over the past three years through consistent performance. A team whose players were once labelled pretty boys with no appetite for a scrap are now the biggest scrappers in the tournament. Again, this may not be enough to win the title. The quality of Stormers players in too many positions does not match the desire of those who will play on Saturday.
A team doesn’t fluke winning Super Rugby’s trophy. No limited or poor team has ever ended the season champions because when the big moments have come the quality players have produced — and that’s why I also give the Sharks an advantage, despite the travel back from Australia and the venue being in Cape Town.
The Sharks have the greater individual pedigree in the pack and big-name players are flexing their muscles at just the right time. The physicality that was absent earlier won the Sharks the match against the Reds, who had lost just two of their past 23 matches in Brisbane.
The Sharks, individually and as a unit, were brutal in the collisions, but never did the need to impose themselves physically come at the expense of composure or attacking intent.
It was a glorious evening for the Sharks and South African rugby. It also ensured one all-South African semi-final, which means SA will be represented in the final. That makes a statement that had to be made after the Boks’ disappointment of the 2011 World Cup.
It is also confirmation of the strength of the South African game, which is why South African players must always be expected to be among the leaders in the game
We have always had the players, but the belief of those players hasn’t always matched their playing pedigree.
The Sharks never doubted they could win against the Reds because they’ve won there before. The Bulls never believed they could win in Christchurch, despite all the pre-match boasts of changing history and fearing nothing. The result was as predictable as the traditional Bulls success at Loftus.
There is no need for crisis in Pretoria. The best Bulls team in the past decade couldn’t win in Christchurch.
The Crusaders, inconsistent this year, relied on the incomparable Richie McCaw and the equally magnificent Dan Carter. McCaw, in particular, was a beast and to produce a performance of such influence in his 11th season of Super Rugby was monumental, even by his incredible standards.
Carter was as imposing and as good as at any stage of his career, yet even if he had produced the worst game of his life it wouldn’t have changed the result. The Bulls were beaten before they got on the aircraft.
The Crusaders were very good because, like the Sharks, their best players stood tallest. It is why they will beat the Chiefs in Hamilton.
And while it isn’t the popular view in Cape Town, the Sharks have the better combinations and the better individuals.