With the final round of the regular season behind us, we have the 6 remaining teams. The 4 teams heading into the play-offs are determined to make it to the semi's. Who has the best chance? What are the stats head-to-head? And what can history tell us about the results coming on Saturday?
The Reds and Sharks are not the most successful teams in the competition, but they are regarded as 2 of the most promising teams. The Reds won the championship last season by beating the Crusaders in the final after topping the log in the regular season. The Sharks, who finished 6th, lost in the play-offs to the same team. What will history say about this match-up? Who has the upper-hand and who is the underdog? Is it really the Sharks drawing the short straw? Let's see and find out.
The match between the Reds and Sharks is a repeat of the first ever play-off match in the competition. Back in 1996, the Sharks, who had amazing talent in captain Gary Teichmann, Andre Joubert, James Small, Ollie le Roux and Mark Andrews, travelled to Brisbane to take on the Reds, who finished top of the log. It was the first and only time these 2 teams met in the play-offs and the match itself was a cracker! With a 25-43 score, the Reds came short and saw the Sharks head towards the final by scoring 5 tries to 3. The Sharks went on to lose in the final to the Blues by an almost similar margin: 45-21 with 6 tries to 2. The Sharks became the first losing finalist and it wouldn't be the last time.
1997 was a disappointing season for the Reds but the Sharks ended 4th again, giving them a play-off match against the Blues. The repeat of the final the previous year turned out to be one of the highest-scoring play-off matches in Super Rugby history. A total of 10 tries overall and a 55-36 final score meant the Sharks were out, again losing to the Auckland-based team. In 1998, the Sharks made the play-offs again and this time they lost to the Crusaders 36-32. When travelling, the Sharks struggle when playing in New Zealand while they beat the Reds in Brisbane. Is that a sign? Or have things changed too much?
The Sharks missed out on 2 play-off series in the following years, but the Reds, with guys like captain Tim Horan, Chris Latham, Jacob Rauluni and John Eales, were in the semi's. Again they topped the log and again they had a semi-final at home. Again they lost. The Crusaders were stronger and eventually went on to win their second title, after beating the Sharks the year before to go to their first victory. 2001 was a season where both teams made the play-offs, with the Sharks being victorious, playing the Cats at home. They won 30-12 and a final was waiting the Durban-fans again. The Reds lost a day later to the Brumbies and the Brumbies, lead by George Gregan on the field, went on to win the title by beating the Sharks. Again the Sharks lost a final.
After 2001, it was quiet in both Durban and Brisbane for a couple of years. Neither team managed to make it to the top-4. Only in 2007 the Sharks were present again. This time as log-leaders, they went into the play-offs as the big favorites. The Sharks beat the Blues, finally getting revenge for the 1996 final, but the good feeling was lost quickly when the Bulls stole the title at the death in the final at Kings Park in Durban. The Sharks-fans were heart-broken, losing yet another final. This time even at home. Will the Sharks ever win the Super Rugby championship?
The Sharks only managed to get the play-offs twice afterwards. In 2008 they lost to the Waratahs, a loss that nobody could argue with, but it would be 3 years before the play-offs would be reached again. In 2011 the Sharks lost the play-off against the Crusaders. After playing the Christchurch team earlier that season at Twickenham, London, the Sharks lost 36-8 in Nelson, the temporary venue used due to the earthquake in Christchurch earlier that year. During the play-offs, the Reds had a week off, being log-leaders. In the semi's the Reds played the Blues. In a game remembered for Rod Davies' hat-trick the Reds cruised to victory and were ready to host their first ever Super Rugby final. In that final they beat the Crusaders 18-13 for their first ever Super Rugby championship.
But what does this mean? Yes, the Reds have won a title in their only final played. The Sharks made the final 3 times, losing it as many, still waiting for the silverware. The Reds have played a total of 5 play-off matches of which they won 2 and lost the other 3. This gives them a winning ratio of 40%. The Sharks have more play-off experience as a franchise, having played a total of 10 play-off matches of which they won 3. It gives them a winning ratio of 30%. This is not an important factor when you look at the teams. The Reds team is almost entirely made up of last season's champions and they know what it's like to win. The Sharks team however, has a lot of players who dealt with the loss of 2007. Keegan Daniel, Ryan Kankowski, Bismarck du Plessis, Tendai Mtawarira, Francois Steyn (although not playing), Jacques Botes and JP Pietersen were all present that year. Will it help?
I guess it all depends on the form of the day. The Reds are without the suspended Quade Cooper. The Sharks have to face the challenge knowing that Patrick Lambie (injury) and Francois Steyn (not eligible) are not available.
Will we see a repeat of the 1996 semi-final? Or will the Sharks lose for a 3rd time in a row when playing in Australia for the play-offs? If the Reds win, it will be their first play-off victory against a South African team. We will have to wait and see.
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