Defeated Sharks still SA’s best

MARK KEOHANE, in his weekly Business Day column, writes that while there was no surprise in the Sharks Super Rugby final defeat, they were the best South African side in the tournament.

The only surprise in Hamilton on Saturday is that so many of the people I spoke to were surprised by the emphatic nature of the Sharks’ defeat in Super Rugby’s 17th final.

A few, as is the custom in SA, blamed the referee. New Zealand-born Steve Walsh had absolutely no bearing on the outcome of this one.

Walsh missed an obvious infringement in the last play of the game in 2007’s final and he was blamed for costing the Sharks their first Super Rugby title. I was among those who caned him, even though it is no secret that the supporter in me has always prized the blue of the Bulls more than any black-and-white tribal strip.

Many of my Bulls mates back in 2007 were quick to point out that Frans Steyn rushed the conversion that would have given the Sharks a two-score advantage going into the final minute of the final, and that even though there was a concession that Walsh was poor the Sharks, playing at home, should have looked after their own destiny. It was Butch James, and not Walsh, who missed a clearance kick for touch, and about half the Sharks forwards couldn’t get a hand on Bryan Habana as he beat several defenders with a step and pace to score what proved to be the decisive try of the final.

The Sharks back then really had no reason to complain. They produced rugby of the necessary quality to win the final, but their coach at the time — Dick Muir — wasn’t quite on the button with his substitutions and his two most experienced players, Springbok captain John Smit and fullback Percy Montgomery, watched the final quarter from the touchline.

Muir got it wrong back in 2007 more than Walsh ever did and the Sharks certainly lost the final more than any on-field superiority won the Bulls their first ever title. You can’t say the Sharks lost anything in Hamilton, outside of a good many hours sleep in getting to the New Zealand north island town from Cape Town, where, a week earlier, they had shown incredible spirit and defied the odds to beat SA’s conference winners, the Stormers, who had finished as the overall league winners, which counts for nothing unless you actually stick around to host the final.

Sharks captain Keegan Daniel refused to use the travel complications as an excuse. Likewise coach John Plumtree and any player interviewed.

The Chiefs players, especially their captain, Craig Clarke, were the ones who weren’t going to be lulled by the illusion that they were in a contest.

Clarke dedicated the first bit of his post-final acceptance speech by paying tribute to the Sharks’ season and offering an acknowledgement from within his squad of what the Durban-based team had overcome to make it to Hamilton.

They had scored four tries and emphatically beaten the Bulls in Durban. The bonus point had given them life in the tournament.

What followed was another bonus-point, home win against the Cheetahs to make the top six play-offs. Then it was off to Brisbane, victory there, a flight back to Cape Town, victory there and a flight back to Auckland, New Zealand.

Sure there was hope from every Sharks supporter that the impossible was possible. And there had to be hope because without hope there is nothing.

It is every rugby supporter’s right to always believe that no matter the challenge his team will triumph.

Those who could view the final without the emotional blindfold of simply having to believe the Sharks would win knew it had the potential to get embarrassing if the home team kept their composure and played with the intent and consistency we had seen all season.

I don’t see much point in trying to dissect where it went wrong for the Sharks. The answer quite frankly is when they won in Cape Town.

It was not a fair contest and this should also be viewed in context. This is not a whine from me or Sharks supporters or South Africans.

It is a mere reflection of the reality of a tournament in which if you host a final and play an opponent from another country you don’t lose easily. In 17 years the only team to dream the dream and get the win have been the Crusaders.

The Chiefs won the collisions and won the game. Forget any reference to an opening 20 minutes when the Sharks controlled the ball and field position because they certainly were not controlling anything in the tackle.

They played as if they were sleepwalking — and you can’t blame them — on a day complicated by a Chiefs unit who played with the conviction of a team whose players knew they could not lose.