Final Preview: Chiefs vs Sharks
New Super Rugby champions will be crowned when the Chiefs host the Sharks at Waikato Stadium in Hamilton on Saturday.
Skill, strength, speed and synergy are all qualities that will be waged against one another but arguably no battle within the 80-minute war will be more telling than the battle of wills.
The unlikely 2012 finalists share this common denominator in abundance. It’s this uncoachable quality that has led the Chiefs and the Sharks to Saturday’s decider, and it’s this intangible feature that will largely determine which team will join the Crusaders, Blues, Bulls, Brumbies and 2011 winners the Reds as champions of the most gruelling provincial rugby competition in the world.
Against all odds and logic, the Sharks have captured the imagination and earned the respect of the rugby fraternity over the past fortnight.
Such heroics and spirited acts of defiance as those against the Reds and Stormers are the stuff of legend. A special group of players determined to finally fulfil their destiny have gone about it in the most awe-inspiring way imaginable.
Barely slipping in through the backdoor to snatch the sixth and final play-off slot, the Sharks have come alive and produced two of the most courageous upsets in Super Rugby play-off history to set up the unlikeliest of finals.
A Cinderella story unlike any the competition has ever seen, the Sharks find themselves on the precipice of greatness.
They are 80 minutes away from achieving the seemingly impossible - overcoming extensive travelling and beating the Australian, South African and New Zealand Conference winners in their own backyards in consecutive weeks to win their first-ever Super Rugby title.
Can the Durban side climb Super Rugby’s Everest? Conventional wisdom says no and the smart money is on the hosts, but how can one not be swept up in the compelling coming of age of a character-filled side whose passion and never-say-die attitude supersede their obvious natural talent and trump that of their much-vaunted opposition?
How can one not entertain the possibility of witnessing such an unscripted fairytale finish to a competition that started all the way back in February?
The Crusaders, emotionally fuelled following devastating earthquakes that rocked Christchurch, fell short in last year’s final against the Reds.
The seven-time champions had also defeated the Stormers at the semi-final stage at Newlands and had made the trip to Brisbane buoyed by their victory.
There was no lack of determination on the part of the Crusaders, but the inevitable travel-induced fatigue set in during the final quarter of the decider and cruelly put paid to their title aspirations.
This grim omen hovers over the Sharks and will threaten to dash their dreams in similar remorseless fashion, with an equally hungry Chiefs side out to win their maiden Super Rugby crown compounding matters for the Sharks.
The hosts were written off even before their season opener against the Highlanders and remained consistent throughout the marathon campaign to win the New Zealand Conference and secure home ground advantage by finishing second on the overall log.
They said it:
Sharks coach John Plumtree: “When we played the Chiefs in Durban we put in a defensive plan for them and it was quite good because it was only a late try that sealed that game for them.
“I think we are playing better than we were then so if we can get up physically for this game, anything can happen.”
Sharks and Springbok wing JP Pietersen: “We have won nothing yet. We have to stay grounded and we have one more mission, one more game.
“We’re motivated by the fact that we are in the final and more so that none of us have ever won the trophy that motivates everyone, the players and coaching staff.
“We have a massive challenge again this week and everyone is hugely excited about it. The Chiefs have been the best team in the competition this season they showed that the whole tournament and were in for a big game.
“They have a great attacking game, they have some fantastic attacking backline players as well as in the loose forwards.
“Then you have Sona Taumalolo who has scored nine tries off pick and goes, so they are dangerous all-round. They also have a good defensive system and will definitely challenge us.”
Sharks and France flyhalf Frederic Michalak: “Playing in finals and semi-finals are really big games and you have to put points on the board when you can, so when the opportunity comes, I try to take it, and that’s what the drop goals were all about against the Stormers.
“The Chiefs are a quality team with some really good players. They won the New Zealand Conference which is outstanding; they won everywhere, at home and on the road, scoring a lot of bonus points over the course of the pool stages of the tournament.
“It’s going to be difficult, a massive final. We need to offer excellent defence and take our chances to put points on the board when we can.”
Key Battle: Aaron Cruden vs. Frederic Michalak. Up front, two granite packs will look to gain ascendency in a colossal clash. The Sharks’ all-Springbok front row was outstanding against the Stormers and really turned the screws at scrum time.
Willem Alberts has been a revelation at lock and his physicality has seemingly rubbed off on Anton Bresler, while the loose trio is firing on all cylinders and gets through a mountain of work.
Try hungry prop Sona Taumalolo and Liam Messam are the danger men in the Chiefs pack and will need to be stopped in their tracks or it could be a long day at the office for the visitors.
All Black playmakers Aaron Cruden and Sonny Bill Williams are central to the Chiefs’ success and with it being Williams’s Super Rugby swansong, one can expect a massive game from him.
Add the sublime form of JP Pietersen and Louis Ludik and timely returns of Pat Lambie and Paul Jordaan and it promises to be a real Hamilton humdinger.
The key one-on-one battle will be that between Cruden and Michalak. Cruden is very much a younger, faster version of his adversary.
Both instinctively look to attack, either by taking on the defence themselves or by putting runners into space with their creative ball skills.
Their decision-making and accuracy will be vital to the outcome of the match.
Last Meeting: Chiefs 18-12 Sharks (Durban).
Prediction: After the longest ever road to the Super Rugby final it has finally come down to this. The Chiefs have been the form team all year and Super Rugby silverware would be just award for their endeavour.
The Sharks have peaked at just the right time and are 80 minutes away from what would be the most extraordinary Super Rugby title triumph in history.
Their mind over matter mentality has been captivating, but after traversing more than 30 000km in the past three weeks can they realistically pull off one final upset?
They’ve proven us wrong since the Finals Series began and we hope they do it again on Saturday. Chiefs by five points.
Saturday 4 August: Chiefs vs. Sharks Hamilton (09:35).
Chiefs: 15 Robbie Robinson, 14 Tim Nanai-Williams, 13 Andrew Horrell, 12 Sonny Bill Williams, 11 Asaeli Tikoirotuma, 10 Aaron Cruden, 9 Tawera Kerr-Barlow, 8 Kane Thompson, 7 Tanerau Latimer, 6 Liam Messam, 5 Brodie Retallick, 4 Craig Clarke (captain), 3 Ben Tameifuna, 2 Mahonri Schwalger, 1 Sona Taumalolo.
Replacements: 16 Hika Elliot, 17 Ben Afeaki, 18 Michael Fitzgerald, 19 Sam Cane, 20 Brendon Leonard, 21 Jackson Willison, 22 Lelia Masaga.
Sharks: 15 Patrick Lambie, 14 Louis Ludik, 13 JP Pietersen, 12 Paul Jordaan, 11 Lwazi Mvovo, 10 Frederic Michalak, 9 Charl McLeod, 8 Ryan Kankowski, 7 Marcell Coetzee, 6 Keegan Daniel (captain), 5 Anton Bresler, 4 Willem Alberts, 3 Jannie du Plessis, 2 Bismarck du Plessis, 1 Tendai Mtawarira.
Replacements: 16 Craig Burden, 17 Wiehahn Herbst, 18 Steven Sykes, 19 Jacques Botes, 20 Jean Deysel, 21 Meyer Bosman, 22 Riaan Viljoen.
Chiefs in Super Rugby play-offs:
Won: 2 (both semi-finals)
Lost: 2 (1 semi-final, 1 final)
Sharks in Super Rugby play-offs:
Won: 5 (4 semi-finals, 1 qualifier)
Lost: 7 (3 finals, 3 semi-finals and 1 qualifier)
Road to the Final 2012
R1: lost to Highlanders 19-23 (Hamilton)
R2: beat Blues 29-14 (Hamilton)
R3: beat Crusaders 24-19 (Napier)
R4: beat Brumbies 29-22 (Hamilton)
R6: beat Waratahs 30-13 (Hamilton)
R7: beat Force 20-12 (Perth)
R8: beat Toyota Cheetahs 39-33 (Bloemfontein)
R9: beat The Sharks 18-12 (Durban)
R10: beat Hurricanes 33-14 (Hamilton)
R11: beat MTN Lions 34-21 (Pukekohe)
R12: lost to Reds 27-42 (Brisbane)
R14: beat Vodacom Bulls 28-22 (Hamilton)
R15: beat Blues 41-34 (Auckland)
R16: beat Highlanders 27-21 (Dunedin)
R17: lost to Crusaders 21-28 (Hamilton)
R18: lost to Hurricanes 25-28 (Wellington)
SF: beat Crusaders 20-17 (Hamilton)
R1: lost to Vodacom Bulls 13-18 (Pretoria)
R2: lost to DHL Stormers 12-15 (Cape Town)
R3: beat MTN Lions 32-20 (Durban)
R4: beat Reds 27-22 (Durban)
R5: lost to Waratahs 30-34 (Sydney)
R6: beat Brumbies 29-26 (Canberra)
R7: lost to Hurricanes 18-42 (Wellington)
R8: beat Blues 29-23 (Auckland)
R9: lost to Chiefs 12-18 (Durban)
R11: beat Highlanders 28-16 (Durban)
R12: beat Force 53-11 (Durban)
R13: beat Toyota Cheetahs 34-20 (Bloemfontein)
R14: beat DHL Stormers 25-20 (Durban)
R15: lost to MTN Lions 28-38 (Johannesburg)
R17: beat Vodacom Bulls 32-10 (Durban)
R18: beat Toyota Cheetahs 34-15 (Durban)
Qual: beat Reds 30-17 (Brisbane)
SF: beat DHL Stormers 26-19 (Cape Town)
If the teams are tied on points at full time, the winner will be decided as follows (in this order): Extra time of two 10-minute halves with a two-minute half time;
If the scores are still tied, then a 10-minute period of sudden death will be played with the first team scoring declared the winner; and if the scores are still tied after that, it will go down to a kicking competition.