A mammoth task, to become the first South African team to win a Vodacom Super Rugby play-off in New Zealand, awaits the Sharks in Christchurch on Saturday. Their opponents are the seven-time champion Crusaders, winners of the New Zealand Conference who’s only lost one in their last five games since going down to the KwaZulu-Natalians in May. And it is that victory, where they played most of the match with 14 men and for 10 minutes with only 13, that will give the Sharks a lot of confidence on Saturday, even though the odds are stacked heavily against them.
In the last 11 seasons of Super Rugby, only three teams have managed to win a semi-final away from home and the Sharks are one of them, when they beat the DHL Stormers in Cape Town in 2012. The other two are the Crusaders (against the Stormers in Cape Town in 2011) and the Brumbies (against the Bulls in Pretoria in 2013). The second semi-final is an all-Aussie affair between the table-topping Waratahs and the Brumbies in Sydney.
The New South Welshmen will host their first-ever Super Rugby final next weekend if they beat the team from Canberra. Travelling across the Indian Ocean for a Super Rugby knock-out game is one of the toughest assignments in this competition, but that is exactly what is facing the Sharks when they take on the seven-time champion Crusaders in Christchurch in the first semi-final on Saturday morning. South African teams going east for playoffs in Australia or New Zealand have struggled in the past, winning only two out of 16 of these matches (both wins were by the Sharks, by the way).
Similarly, Australasian teams travelling west for playoffs in South Africa have won only three from 10. That brings the total winning percentage for teams crossing the Indian Ocean for knock-out matches to a measly 19%, or five out of 26. When the focus shifts to South African teams’ playoff performances in New Zealand, the picture is bleaker still. Teams from the Republic have played nine knock-out matches away against Kiwi sides and have lost all of them. These stats may not bode well for the Sharks as they prepare to take on the Crusaders on Saturday, but the fact that they became the first South African team to win in Christchurch in 13 years earlier this season, will give them a lot of confidence.
“We know if we play well enough we can beat the Crusaders because we’ve done it before. It’s knockout rugby and it’s a whole new game, but it’s meaningless what’s happened before and how many All Blacks they have, and what the history books say. I’m a big believer that this group of players can beat anybody, and we’ve beaten both the Crusaders and Waratahs already this season. If we play well, we can get a win. The Highlanders flew from the other side of the world and nearly beat us, and they finished sixth and we were third. It’s going to happen at some stage that a team that finishes outside the top two will go on to win the competition. The Crusaders are a phenomenal team, we’re under no illusions of how good they are and what they’ve achieved, but we just have to prepare as best we can to give ourselves a chance. They have players in their team who won the Rugby World Cup a few years ago, they have guys who are consistently in play-off games, the team hasn’t missed out on play-off rugby in a long time, and all these guys have been part and parcel of play-off games, so I have no doubt that with the team they have available and the experience they have, they’ll be a massive force,” said Sharks Director of Rugby Jake White.