The Sharks are the most successful Super Rugby franchise never to have won the title, with this their fourth Super Rugby Final. This season might not have begun according to plan, but the sixth placed South African wildcard qualifying side is building up an impressive head of steam.
Back-to-back losses to start their season were not an ideal way to commence a campaign, and while those defeats might have been away from Durban, the Sharks have, in recent years, lived in the shadow of the Bulls (courtesy of their three titles) and the Stormers (two-time South African Conference champions), after being the best performer early in the tournament’s history.
It was not until 2007 that another South African team reached a Super Rugby Final, and the Bulls had to overcome the Sharks – then in their third such fixture – to claim their first crown, a title that many in Durban felt was so close they could touch it.
With a squad that features 16 capped Springboks, and one Les Bleus representative in the form of Fred Michalak, the Sharks group’s strength is further accentuated when considering that the French maestro competes with South African golden boy Pat Lambie for a starting berth.
As the 2012 season progressed hopes for the Sharks didn’t exactly firm, with their 18-12 loss to this weekend’s opponents the Chiefs back in round nine being the South African’s fifth loss in their opening nine matches.
That match however represented a change in fortunes for the Sharks, and perhaps they have the Chiefs to thank for what has been the most impressive second half season turnaround of any team.
Four straight wins, including the scalps of the Highlanders and Stormers, followed over the next month, and this may have been helped by the Sharks round ten bye – one of the last teams to take a week off this season.
While there was a shock loss to the Lions, the Sharks have now won eight of their last nine, a streak unequalled by any franchise.
Such a statistic is backed up by the fact that the team had to overcome the defending champion Reds in their home fortress of Suncorp Stadium, and then had to haul back to South Africa to face the Stormers in their colosseum that is DHL Newlands.
Two wins that have seen the Sharks knock off no less than two Conference champions.
If they were to beat the Chiefs in Hamilton this weekend, then it would represent a historic hat-trick over the finest sides in each Conference, and perhaps give the Sharks not only the Super Rugby title – but the unofficial tag of having the toughest Finals run of any champion.
Certainly the Sharks will hope that their first Kiwi finals opponent since Super Rugby’s debut in 1996 will not be a bridge too far, with the side playing the Blues (1996), Brumbies (2001) and Bulls (2007).
This means that the Sharks are in an exclusive club also featuring the Crusaders and the Blues, one of three franchises to face an opponent from each Conference in a Super Rugby Final.
It has been a strong performance to date this year for the Sharks who saw their season end quietly with a heavy loss to the Crusaders last year, and now the side stands on the brink of becoming the second South African team to lift a Super Rugby trophy.