Durban - They are heading to an inhospitable venue to face a Brumbies team that has been given extra motivation at the end of the week but at least the Sharks have familiarity and happy memories on their side as they build up to Saturday’s Super Rugby quarter-final.
The Sharks are not in Canberra, the Australian capital city and venue for Saturday’s match, just yet. They are doing most of their build-up in Sydney, and are residing in the same Cooggee seaside suburb that they did when they were preparing for their game against the Waratahs at the start of their tour. They also spent part of the week building up to their clash with the Crusaders there, electing to cross the Tasman Sea to Christchurch as late as they could.
The prospect that they might have to go back there for a play-off game probably didn’t enter into the Sharks’ decision making back then, but it has a positive spin-off for them in that the associations with the Sydney suburb are all good. They emerged from a slump, and a long drought against the Australian franchise that dated back to 2000, from that base to beat the Waratahs, and then followed up with a commendable draw against the Crusaders.
That last result was an indication that this Sharks team can overcome big challenges. They will need to do more of that this week for the debilitating factor that is the travel they have had to do recently cannot be underestimated. They looked tired when they made heavy weather of beating a severely disrupted Stormers team in Cape Town last weekend, and it wasn’t surprising if you consider they had just returned from Buenos Aires.
The flight to Sydney is not quite as long as the one from Argentina. It is direct these days as opposed to a trip from South America that takes in stops in Brazil before crossing the Atlantic Ocean, but it does take in several time zones. Eight hours forward in time to be precise. And it is when you travel from west to east that it most impacts in the way of jet lag.
The Sharks have of course won play-off games in Australia before, twice, but those two wins in Brisbane did not come a week after returning home from Argentina. So there is every reason for the Sharks to want to clutch at every little shard of hope, and Cooggee has provided that.
“Cooggee is a lovely place and we were here before this year so we were very excited when we heard we would be staying here,” said skipper Louis Schreuder by teleconference call with the Durban media from Sydney.
Schreuder sounded a bit drowsy and it might have been understandable. The Sharks experienced a hectic day and a half to two days between scoring the try that secured their passage to Australia and their arrival in Sydney. They arrived back in Durban from Cape Town at 13:00 on Sunday afternoon, and had to be on the plane to Joburg for the connecting flight to Australia just two hours later.
So their trayel schedule effectively read Cape Town to Durban, Durban to Johannesburg, Johannesburg to Sydney…and their journey isn’t yet over as they face the three hour bus trip to Canberra on Thursday.
“It was a bit of a mad scramble from Cape Town to get on the plane, and we will be completing the journey by driving to Canberra by bus on Thursday,” said the captain.
Schreuder has been there before, but once they have completed the trip the environment will bring far fewer happy memories and will be a lot less hospitable.
“I’ve been to Canberra a few times and I know about how cold it can get there. We checked on the weather and it is looks like it is going to be minus-10 on the evening of the game. It’s a bit like Bloemfontein, but there is a nice atmosphere on match day and we will just try and enjoy it and do as well as we can.”
The Brumbies meanwhile have been given extra motivation by the announcement from skipper Christian Lealiifano that once the Brumbies are out of Super Rugby he would have played his last game for them. He is to continue his career in Japan from later this year.
Lealiifano, diagnosed with leukaemia in 2016, is a popular figure at the Brumbies and they will be determined to prolong his career with them as long as possible, just as the Sharks would have for Tendai ‘Beast’ Mtawarira had he been playing.
Regardless of their extra motivation, however, Schreuder knows the Brumbies are going to be a tough team to beat.
“We haven’t faced them before (this season). They were one of the two teams we missed this year. But we know they were log winners in their conference and that didn’t happen by accident. They are a physical and well organised team with a very good set piece and kicking game. We know we will have to be at our best to stand any chance of winning.”