‘Sharks can win Super Rugby final’

Sports scientist Ross Tucker says the Sharks have a realistic chance of beating the Chiefs in Hamilton.

While there is still a Super Rugby final to be played on Saturday, many would agree that the Sharks have already exceeded expectations.

After a stuttering start to their league campaign (which included five defeats in their opening nine fixtures), a strong finish saw them finish in the top six. They did the job during the wildcard qualifier in Brisbane, powering to a 30-17 victory over 2011 champions the Reds. They defied odds in the semi-finals by travelling across the Indian Ocean for the second time in a space of week to give the Stormers their first defeat at Newlands this season with a 26-19 victory.

Astonishing.

So how do we rate the Sharks’ chances in the final? Sure, they’ve hit a purple patch of form, but how much does all the travelling really affect this?

Tucker’s analysis, which includes Super Rugby records from the past seven years, states that playing at home gives a team a five-point advantage, while travel overseas gives you a five-point disadvantage. This study puts the Sharks at a 15-point disadvantage, considering their travel to Hamilton was their third trip across the Indian Ocean in two weeks.

‘I don’t mean 15 points in the literal sense, which many people have interpreted it.’ Tucker told keo.co.za. ‘But theoretically … in the sense that the Sharks would have to perform that much better than they would’ve if they were playing at home. There’s no absolute rating as anything can happen on the day, but this study gives a fan some view to weigh the odds.

‘Guess the score for Saturday’s match, then guess it again, but this time, try to do the hypothetical exercise of imagining that the Sharks are not away from home and that they haven’t had to travel three times in two weeks. If your score is different, then you have factored in the travel effect. How much of an effect is found in how different your answers are. The history of the tournament says it is about 15 points. Think of it as a “cost” of traveling.’

Some pundits have already written the Sharks’ chances off as the Super Rugby title decider is seen as a step too far.

Seven-time champions the Crusaders fell short in a similar scenario last season, after they beat the Sharks in the wildcard play-offs in Nelson before downing the Stormers in the semis in Cape Town. They went on to lose the final 18-13 to the Reds at Suncorp Stadium.

However, Tucker believes the Durban franchise can defy the odds once more.

‘The win over the Stormers was a major psychological boost,’ he said. ‘The Stormers were favourites as they were playing at home and had rest, while the Sharks had the setbacks of travel. But you can never discount form. The Sharks’ players are playing superb rugby individually and their combinations are gelling really well. This will give them the belief that they can do it again … one more time… in Hamilton. The Super Rugby title will be a huge motivator.

‘But while form can’t be discounted, you have to admit that travelling back and forth and such great distances will take its toll. Players have to adapt to certain time zones, then re-adapt, and re-adapt again. It’s a tiring process. [Head coach] John Plumtree will need to manage his players really well and allow them enough rest. He will also need to focus on sleeping hours and diets – those 1% factors that can make a difference.

‘In terms of preparation, Plumtree doesn’t have to develop anything new heading into the final, so he shouldn’t use training drills that will drain his players during the week. With the correct management plan, the Sharks can surprise many people.’

However, Tucker stressed that a strong start to the match will be needed.

‘Against the Stormers, the Sharks began to tired in the last 15-10 minutes of the match. That’s when the Stormers started cutting the deficit and nearly came back. Against the Chiefs, the Sharks will need to build a lead. It will be a tough task, but it would put them in a strong position.

‘At the end of the day, the Sharks will know that they only need to get through 80 minutes. They might discard certain factors, but at the end of the day, this is what sportsmen live for. They can’t avoid the challenge, they can only overcome it. In the final, they’ll try and set the tempo early on and follow through with it.’

By Gareth Duncan