Sympathy and South Africa are not always comfortable companions in the same rugby sentence.

However, the Sharks have got a really raw deal as they approach the Super 15 final with the Chiefs.

Approach is the right term because they have some distance to go as they bunker down in Sydney, trying to deal with jetlag, before they finally hit Hamilton for Saturday's showdown.

When they return to Durban, the Sharks will have covered 55,000km during the playoffs taking in Johannesburg, Brisbane, Cape Town, Sydney, Hamilton and points between.


You'd be doing well to feel frisky with that itinerary on holiday without having the physical demands and mental anguish of playing three sudden-death matches, the pool and gym recovery, time spent over computer analysis and a bit on the training track.

That's playing with an unfair deck which will always be a problem in a competition topped with playoffs.

The three-conference system is uneven and flawed. Until the 15 teams all play the rest of the field there will be inequitable results. The Chiefs didn't play the Stormers this season while the Sharks avoided the Crusaders.

Across the Ditch, the Reds finished sixth in the overall points ladder yet they hosted a quarter-final because they won the Australian conference. The Reds didn't deserve to get a financial and hosting reward for finishing almost mid-table.

There's probably little room for Sanzar to manoeuvre in the next three years of their broadcasting deal. However, if, as we hear, they can bring the competition forward another few weeks next season to accommodate the Lions tour to Australia, there should be room for round-robin matches against everyone.

The big Super 15 prizemoney and title should go to the winner of that series. Under that system the Stormers would have earned that accolade because of their consistency throughout the four months of competition when they proved they were better than all the rest.

Then Sanzar and their television cohorts could keep the status quo, insist the finals are held in one country each season, or find some hybrid model which gives travelling sides time to catch their breath.

The Sharks may overcome their obstacles to win this week and that would be a monumental effort. Whatever the result, though, the Sharks' tortuous finals route cannot be good for the players or the series.