Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town – Simply playing the Crusaders, and in their own Christchurch stronghold, is a formidable enough gig … the worst you could have, really.
The fact that the lowest-seeded team for the knockout phase of conference-format Super Rugby has never gone on to win the Super Rugby title only adds to the theme of implausibility, if you like, regarding the Sharks’ tenuous, ongoing credentials in the 2018 competition as they weigh up Saturday’s quarter-final as the pronounced underdogs.
Is it a reward, or is it really more like purgatory, to sneak that eighth and final place for the finals series and know you are headed off on yet another long-haul flight overseas, likely by sheer historical weight of evidence to be experiencing your last match anyway?
Certainly there seemed no especially animated whooping and dancing by either Sharks players or fans at a sparsely-populated, soggy Kings Park last Saturday after they duly confirmed the need among the team to show their passports a day later – courtesy of an industrial victory over the weakened Jaguares.
Apart from the enduring controversy around conference winners having to bag the top three seedings – quite regardless of the overall situation in log-points terms – there is also the justifiable argument over whether, in a 15-team competition, it is appropriate for more than half of them to advance to a swollen climax phase seemingly designed more for extra live television opportunities than a whole lot else.
Just compare the respective ordinary-season performances of the top-placed ‘Saders and eighth-ending Sharks and you are entitled to question whether the visitors warrant being on the same park at this advanced stage.
The Crusaders, from a notably more difficult conference as well, earned 14 wins and 63 points (77 tries, 39 against), as opposed to the Sharks’ seven wins and 36 points (49 tries, 57 against).
Then again, at least there is no doubting the credibility of the Durban outfit’s seedings spot: they are genuinely eighth, which is more than you can say for either of the Lions or Waratahs, beefed into second and third respectively by structural stipulation above the right to be there on a points basis.
There are also a few compelling enough reasons for the Sharks, under their hard taskmaster Robert du Preez, not to simply run up a white flag in mental terms before they have even taken to the pitch in Christchurch.
One is that most of their party should know, deep down, that they ought to have delivered a better finish than eighth this year, given what they’ve usually been able to offer as a line-up on paper.
So the knockout phase – the possibility of a spirited run in it – does amount to an opportunity for atonement.
More than that, though, the Sharks have also been comfortably the best South African side in terms of competitiveness against New Zealand-specific foes this season, which is at least some cause for believing they can cause a tremendous upset against the mighty Cantabrians on Saturday.
They’ve won three of the four relevant games, and even the agonising, late 38-37 reverse to the Hurricanes at Napier deserves to be up among the others as candidates for their shortlist of “performances of the season” – they were wretchedly unlucky that day.
There is also the handy (and rare) little matter of “been there, done that” for the Sharks when it comes to prior knowledge of prevailing against the Crusaders away: they did so in league play against the odds in 2014.
In a remarkable match marked by their bloody-minded desire to succeed despite the red-carding of Jean Deysel for a stamping incident in the 17th minute, the Sharks nosed it out 30-25 after a late try from Kyle Cooper, the replacement hooker who now plies his trade with Newcastle Falcons in England.
All that said, though, the portents from a statistical point of view hardly look bright for the Sharks when you study the fortunes of the lowest-seeded side annually since the advent of the conference system – and a KO phase involving more than just semis and a final — in 2011.
Coincidentally, the Sharks have been the lowest-seeded qualifying team themselves on as many as five of the eight occasions now; they seem to make a speciality of scuttling through the gate.
Most customarily, the lowest qualifying team bows out at the very first attempt in the knockouts (the effective quarter-final), although the 2012 Sharks, interestingly, were a notably gutsy exception.
Then under John Plumtree’s coaching tenure, they defied both common sense and medical expectation by bouncing back and forth across the Indian Ocean during the playoffs to advance to the showpiece against the Chiefs (where they were duly obliterated 37-6 as travel fatigue took a remorseless hold at last).
First they had beaten the Reds in Brisbane (30-17), then heroically downed the Stormers a few days later in their Newlands den (26-19) before it all got a bit too much for them back across the globe once more in Hamilton.
Can the Sharks’ class of 2018 show such true grit?
The answer will at least start to become apparent on Saturday …
*Here is the list of post-2010 occasions (start of conference format) in which the lowest-seeded team has succumbed at the first knockout-phase hurdle:
Sharks, 2017: Lost quarter-final 23-21 to Lions in Johannesburg
Sharks, 2016: Lost quarter-final 41-0 to Hurricanes in Wellington
Highlanders, 2014: Lost quarter-final 31-27 to Lions in Johannesburg
Cheetahs, 2013: Lost quarter-final 15-13 to Brumbies in Canberra
Sharks, 2011: Lost quarter-final 36-8 to Crusaders in Christchurch
*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing