Gruelling travel may bring Sharks down

JON CARDINELLI writes the Sharks have found form late in the competition but it is their early season failures that could prevent them from lifting their first Super Rugby title.

Saturday’s performance against the Reds was astounding. Against significant odds, the Sharks put together their best performance of the season.

They played with confidence, power, precision, and above all else, intelligence. It didn’t matter that this game was played in Brisbane or that the Sharks were missing two key players, they showed their quality in producing their best display when it mattered most.

If there is such a thing as total rugby, both the Sharks and Crusaders produced it last Saturday. But while the latter will have found due course for celebration, the former should realise that the competition is about to get a lot tougher, and that luck is certainly not on their side.

The Stormers have been accused of being lucky this season, although in a competition as long and demanding as Super Rugby, you don’t win 14 out of 16 games by luck.

You don’t win three out of four games Down Under, and seven out of eight inter-conference matches by chance. Away victories in Brisbane, Pretoria, Dunedin… well you get the picture.

In fact, the Cape side will be quick to argue the contrary. It’s felt within the Stormers camp that they may have scored more tries during the league if luck had gone their way. Indeed, they may have turned in better showings had they not been hampered by so many injuries, and if their first-choice back row had been available.

But no team finishes the Super Rugby league in first position by dumb luck. The Stormers have earned a home semi-final, and will enjoy all the advantages of playing a knockout match at Newlands. The Sharks, who have at times played the better rugby but have not been as consistent in terms of league results, will be up against it.

While they are traditionally stronger in this fixture at Kings Park, the Sharks haven’t beaten the Stormers at Newlands since 2009. On the back of that sensational performance against the Reds, you should believe they’re capable of breaking a three-year drought, but for one small detail.

After flying to Australia last week, they will fly back to South Africa to face the Stormers. That’s a 22 000km round trip in the space of a week.

The travel will surely take its toll. It should also be remembered that the Stormers have been resting up in Cape Town for the past week, having earned a bye by finishing the league in the top two. They will be the fresher outfit when the two teams take the field this Saturday.

A victory in Cape Town is not impossible for the Sharks, especially given the Stormers’ injury situation and the fact that they lost last year’s semi-final against the Crusaders.

The Cantabrians proved it possible to fly halfway across the world and still win crunch matches, and the Sharks should draw inspiration from that achievement. But can the Sharks keep producing performances like they did in Brisbane? Can they really maintain that intensity?

There has to be some doubt in this regard. Even if they beat the Stormers this week, they will travel back Down Under to face one of the Chiefs or Crusaders in a final.

The Reds were outstanding in the 2011 final and deserved to win, but it was evident that the Crusaders were not as sharp as usual and that the extensive travel had finally caught up with them.

It would make for an incredible story if the Sharks went all the way, but if they don’t, then they will reflect on their earlier failures as reasons for yet another near miss.

As the history of this competition will confirm, home advantage is crucial in the play-offs. The Sharks underachieved in the league stage of the 2011 season, and were forced to travel to Christchurch for a play-off as a result. They’ve produced a mixed bag once again in 2012, and while they’ve done enough to progress to the semi-finals, they haven’t done enough to avoid the great detractor of travel fatigue.

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