Sharks made to regret slow start

JON CARDINELLI writes the Sharks will need to replicate the Chiefs’ league phase consistency if they hope to be realistic title contenders in 2013.

The 15-team Super Rugby competition has proved to be far more arduous than it’s 14-side predecessor, and after two seasons some trends have been made patently clear.

The Reds won the Super Rugby title in 2011 and the Chiefs won it in 2012. Both teams topped their respective conferences and both teams finished in the top two on the overall log. Both teams hosted tired opponents in the grand final, opponents that had traversed the Indian Ocean at least twice during the finals series.

Mark Keohane wrote on Friday that the competition format is flawed and that the Sharks should never be expected to beat the Chiefs after such a taxing travel schedule. Keohane argued that the format made a farce of the final concept, and that it would never produce a contest where two teams stood a chance of winning.

That the competition is flawed is plain to see. Should it change? Undoubtedly. Will it change? Not until 2016.

According to Sanzar CEO Greg Peters, the tournament will not expand until 2016 and the format will remain as is for another three seasons until a new broadcast deal is signed.

If a South African team hopes to win the Super Rugby title in the next three years, they will need to finish in the top two. Better yet, they will need to finish top of the league and put themselves into a position to host a grand final.

But there’s more to the winning formula than that. The competition spans February to August, and it isn’t enough that you top the league – you need to progress to the knockouts with the majority of your first-choice players still intact.

This is where the Stormers fell short in 2012. They managed to top the overall league but lost too many key players in the process. They went into that semi-final with a number of rookies and were even forced to play several players out of position in order to field a competitive team.

The Chiefs won 12 out of 16 during the regular season, and while they lost Richard Kahui early in the year, their forwards marched on to the final. It said much for their depth that Sam Cane, the man who is being tipped to succeed Richie McCaw as the All Blacks openside flank, was on the bench in the Hamilton decider.

On paper, there weren’t too many differences between the Chiefs and Sharks after the league stage. They both had scored and conceded a similar amount of tries, and had both embraced a balanced approach. However, what allowed the Chiefs to finish four places ahead of the Sharks was the fact that they had secured two more wins than the Durban franchise.

The Sharks have finished the league in sixth position for the past two seasons, and while there may have been a lot of hype and emotion around their golden run towards the 2012 final, a team is always going to struggle to win the competition from that particular position.

What teams like the Sharks need to start doing is putting together some consistent performances, and maintaining their form throughout the season. If the Chiefs are capable of doing so, why not the Sharks?

The Sharks fell short of the title this year, but ultimately they left themselves with too much to do in the latter stages of the competition. They won just four of their first nine matches and this forced them to play catch-up in the second half of their campaign.

They will regret the loss to the Lions in Johannesburg, although it wasn’t just one result that prevented them of finishing higher on the log. They were too loose at the start of their campaign, and were duly punished by the Bulls and Stormers. There were some spectacular wins such as the victory over the Reds in Durban, but they struggled to win more than two games on the trot.

The ugly win against the Highlanders was the turning point, and the Sharks managed to win six of their last seven league games. In some instances the manner of victory was emphatic (they scored four four-try bonus points during that period) and so there was good reason to believe they could go all the way.

But as the past two seasons have shown, the brand of rugby is not all decisive. The most consistent teams play themselves into a position to host a play-off and thus avoid the draining effects of travel. A more consistent display during the league will help the Sharks avoid this debilitation in future.

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