Who thought the Sharks could beat the Crusaders?

2014-05-24 00:00

HANDS up all those readers who thought the Sharks could beat the Crusaders last week end after Jean Deysel was sent off in the first quarter of the match. Nobody? I thought so, which puts all of you and me to shame against my wife who confidently predicted a win for the Sharks. Even when the team were reduced to 13 men, her faith in the Sharks was undiminished. Her triumphant beam when the final whistle blew was almost worth the chagrin I felt at having my pessimism exposed in the face of her optimism.

The difference between sport and the theatre is that with the former you never know the ending. The drama of sport is that every so often a result occurs that surpasses all understanding. This is what happened last Saturday in Christchurch where a full strength Sharks team have never won, let alone against a team who had suddenly become the form team of this year’s Super rugby competition.

What that extraordinary victory shows is that, if a team or a player hang on in a match for long enough, strange things can happen. Few competitors are completely immune to panic or self doubt when their ability to put away an inferior opponent is unexpectedly called into question. Even the most confident and assured are susceptible to choking, which is the malaise that affected the Crusaders when confronted with a determined underdog that refused to lie down.

It can only have been a sense of unease that gripped them when they continually opted for a kick at the posts rather than kicking the ball into the corners to set up attacking line-outs a few metres from the Sharks’ try line. It apparently did not occur to them that the only way the Sharks could get back into the Crusaders’ 22 was from a kick-off from the centre spot after conceding a penalty.

The stunned looks on the faces of Richie McCaw and the rest of the Crusaders after this match was almost worth the many hours of disappointment inflicted on South Africans by the rugby players of New Zealand.

Is it too much to hope that the mongrel (without the indiscipline) displayed by the Sharks will be emulated when the Springboks take on the All Blacks later this year?

I raise the unexpected drama that sport continually provides because two great streaks are set to be tested in the next month and a half. One is of particular interest to Nick Mallett, whose Springbok team are the current holders of the 17-match winning streak record in international rugby.

Anyone who knows Mallett will understand how fiercely proud he is of that record, which has stood for 17 years. It is ironic that the fate of that record resides in the hands of the man who was given the English job that was Mallett’s for the taking.

The RFU had wanted him to assume a temporary position as coach of the England team prior to their decision to make the appointment more permanent but Mallett would not renege on a promise to spend six months with his family after the Italian job.

It is only Stuart Lancaster’s England team who can prevent the All Blacks from equalling the Mallett team record when they visit New Zealand in June for a three-match series. I am afraid that without many of their best players who are injured, England are unlikely to succeed where so many other full strength teams have failed. Hopefully for Mallett, the England team saw the Sharks game last weekend and are able to steel themselves for a similar mighty effort against the odds.

Before England have completed that series, we will know if the great Rafa Nadal has managed to see off his opposition to secure his fifth successive French Open title (and ninth overall), which would break the record he currently shares with Bjorn Borg. This season the Spaniard has looked more vulnerable on clay than ever before, but it would be a brave man to bet against him at Roland Garros where he has been so supreme for so long.

Supporters of Novak Djokovic must have taken comfort last Sunday from the ease with which he ultimately disposed of Nadal in Rome. Djokovic nearly beat Nadal at the French Open last year and is in great form in contrast to Nadal who struggled in Rome against a variety of opponents. These included Andy Murray, who will have come away from his losing match with a fresh belief that he, too, can beat the Spaniard on clay.

Is it possible that the publicity that was given last year to the controversial blood spinning administered to Nadal by his medical team have deterred them from repeating the treatments this northern summer? This might explain Nadal’s unusual fatigue at the end of his Rome match against Djokovic.

The Roland Garros championship, starting tomorrow, is the favourite tournament of many tennis fans. This year’s version will be filled with as much interest and intrigue as any of its predecessors. Djokovic just needs the French title to complete his haul of all four Grand Slams.

Should he succeed it will be the first time that three current players have achieved this, which gives credence to the belief that this has been the strongest era of men’s tennis in the history of the game.

There will be those that argue the Borg, McEnroe, Connors and Lendl era was stronger but the lie is given to that claim by the series of Roland Garros classic matches shown this week by SuperSport. The pace, power and shot making of that earlier generation was so much inferior to that of the present mob that seeing Borg beat Lendl was like watching the current players in slow motion.

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