CHIEFS v SHARKS
When: Waikato Stadium, Hamilton
Where: Saturday August 4, 7.35pm (5.35pm AEDT)
Referee: Steve Walsh (Australia)
Head-to-Head: Played 17, Sharks 9, Chiefs 8
In Hamilton: Played 6, Chiefs 4, Sharks 2
2012 meeting: Round 9, April 21, 2012: Chiefs beat Sharks 18-12 at Kings Park, Durban
THIS FIRST-TIME final throws up all sorts of fascinating numbers for the boffins out there.
For instance, did you know that the Chiefs have not blown any team off the park in 2012, having a points spread of between 18 and 41 in all 17 matches played? And the season low of 18 was that priceless 18-12 win over the Sharks back in April 21 in Durban? Sam Cane was man of the match then and this is what Rugby News’ Durban-based correspondent Mike Greenaway had to say of the two tries to none victory: “There was not a lot of finesse but what a contest as the Sharks dragged the Chiefs into a street fight that ultimately saw the visitors scramble over the finish line.”
Of more import is that the Sharks have posted eight wins from their last nine games since that defeat to the Chiefs. In their 30-17 qualifier win over the Reds and 26-19 semifinal victory over the Stormers, they have shown tactical nous and technical expertise, and are getting the best out of No 10 Frederic Michalak, who has picked up the slack left by the injured Pat Lambie to deliver two high quality displays in the playoffs. He is due at Toulouse for French Top 14 action within a fortnight, but he would love to sign off on his tenure at the Sharks with some silverware. He is kicking for goal and out of hand well, and his running and passing game will give Aaron Cruden, the competition’s leading scorer, plenty to think about.
Lambie, waterboy last weekend, will travel, but his status is still uncertain. Tim Whitehead has a broken hand and is out. What coach John Plumtree would give to have Frans Steyn breaking his eligibility bonds to take his place in the side.
Plumtree knows well the feeling of being a bridesmaid – he saw the Wellington Lions to three, losing, NPC finals from 2003-06. He also watched on as the Sharks copped a 42-16 hiding in the 2011 Currie Cup final to John Mitchell’s Golden Lions. He is well aware the travel factor is very much against his hard-nosed charges. You do not travel from Durban to Brisbane, back to Cape Town and then on to Sydney before pitching up in Hamilton over just 19 days and still expect to be in peak physical condition. Stormers captain Jean de Villiers was not far off the mark when he said if the Sharks win the final it will be the greatest achievement in the history of Super Rugby.
They may be the form team of the competition since the June hiatus, but they will be kicking themselves for being so slow out of the blocks, being 4-5 at the halfway mark, not to mention dropping one to the Lions, of all teams. That meant they qualified sixth, and thus endured a tougher path to the final.
But their forward power has been evident in recent weeks. They cleaned out the Bulls, smothered the Reds and ground down the Stormers. Now they must plan to combat the Chiefs, the hungry Chiefs. Jannie du Plessis will not want to see Sona Taumalolo go to 10 tries for the season, which would tie him for the lead. Similarly, the likes of Marcell Coetzee will not want to see Liam Messam power over for a try like he did in such style against the Crusaders.
JP Pietersen will probably suit up at centre. He is the outstanding back in South African rugby at this juncture, and shimmied over for a decisive try in the semifinal.
The Chiefs’ rush defence will need to be on high alert. Pietersen has six tries to his name, as does the dynamic skipper Keegan Daniel, while wing Lwazi Mvovo has eight to his credit.
The Sharks successfully employed an aerial strategy against the limited Stormers, so the Chiefs back three of Robbie Robinson, Tim Nanai-Williams and Asaeli Tikoirotuma should expect to be rained on with high balls.
But the Chiefs know if they bring the same no-nonsense attitude to their work that they displayed in the stirring 20-17 victory over the Crusaders, then that will go a long way towards a first Super Rugby title for this proud but underachieving franchise. They are in far better shape than when they were pummelled by the Bulls in the 2009 decider, they are high on confidence after last Friday’s effort and low on injuries (Richard Kahui is the only major absence). The success of their season was based around a nine- game winning streak from March to May.
Five of the six Rugby News tipsters at the start of the year picked the Sharks to reach the playoffs, but only two predicted the Chiefs to crack the post-season again. Mr Greenaway had the prescience to correctly pick both teams to make the playoffs.
It is now over to the Chiefs to justify their clear favourites’ tag.
ROAD TO THE FINAL
Chiefs in 2012
Highlanders (h) lost 19-23
Blues (h) won 29-14
Crusaders (a) won 24-19
Brumbies (h) won 29-22
Waratahs (h) won 30-13
Force (a) won 20-12
Cheetahs (a) won 39-33
Sharks (a) won 18-12
Hurricanes (h) won 33-14
Lions (h) won 34-20
Reds (a) lost 27-42
Bulls (h) won 28-22
Blues (a) won 41-34
Highlanders (a) won 27-21
Crusaders (h) lost 21-28
Hurricanes (a) lost 25-28
Crusaders (h) won 20-17
Played 17, won 13, lost 4
(second on table)
Sharks in 2012
Bulls (a) lost 13-18
Stormers (a) lost 12-15
Lions (h) won 32-20
Reds (h) won 27-22
Waratahs (a) lost 30-34
Brumbies (a) won 29-26
Hurricanes (a) lost 18-42
Blues (a) won 29-23
Chiefs (h) lost 12-18
Highlanders (h) won 28-16
Force (h) won 53-11
Cheetahs (a) won 34-20
Stormers (h) won 25-20
Lions (a) lost 28-38
Bulls (h) won 32-10
Cheetahs (h) won 34-16
Reds (a) won 30-17
Stormers (a) won 26-19
Played 18, won 12, lost 6
(sixth on table)
LAST FIVE MEETINGS
2012 Chiefs 18-12 Sharks, Durban
2011 Chiefs 15-9 Sharks, Hamilton
2010 Chiefs 19-18 Sharks, Durban
2009 Sharks 22-15 Chiefs, Hamilton
2008 Sharks 47-25 Chiefs, Durban
There are plenty of mouth-watering clashes on offer this weekend.
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