Chiefs v Sharks, Super Rugby Final, Hamilton, August 4
Will globe-trotting Sharks get travel sick?
July 30, 2012
Will Sonny Bill Williams offer the Chiefs' fans a fitting leaving present in the form of the Super Rugby crown? © Getty Images
While Olympic glory awaits the likes of Usain Bolt and Michael Phelps at the end of a 100m track or a swimming pool, the Sharks must complete an altogether more daunting 30,000 mile course if they are to lay claim to the Super Rugby crown on Saturday.
The Durban-based side have been racking up air miles and big-name scalps on their play-off run to the season finale with the Australian Conference champions the Reds and their South African counterparts the Stormers lying in their wake with both victories having come during a formbook-shredding and Indian Ocean-spanning journey.
But they face the challenge of another long haul if they are to cap their rugby odyssey with the southern hemisphere silverware with the Chiefs lying in wait in Hamilton this weekend where a new Super Rugby champion will be crowned.
The Chiefs will enter the title-decider as favourites having rediscovered their mojo a fortnight after their season appeared to be imploding to register a 20-17 victory over the much-fancied Crusaders in their semi-final clash. But they face a Sharks side that continues to defy the odds having beaten top seeds the Stormers 26-19 in Cape Town.
The Chiefs entered their final four clash having suffered back-to-back defeats at the hands of the Hurricanes and the Crusaders at the end of the regular season. They still safely secured the New Zealand Conference title but they lost their place at the top of the overall standings and with it the chance to host the season finale should they and the table-topping Stormers qualify for the showpiece event.
But the rest week afforded them thanks to their eventual runners-up finish served them well with a re-focused and resilient Chiefs side avenging their recent loss to their Kiwi rivals with a power-packed display at the same Waikato Stadium that will now play host to the final. Wary that the seven-time champions lining up against them had largely dictated proceedings in their two previous meeting this season, the Chiefs fronted up well but their fresh ferocity bordered on indiscipline at times and threatened to undermine their challenge.
First half tries from flanker Liam Messam and the prolific prop Sona Taumalolo gave the Chiefs some precious breathing room in the first half and with the competition's leading points scorer - Aaron Cruden - pulling the strings at fly-half in his personal duel with All Blacks rival Dan Carter, the home side kept the Crusaders at arm's length. But it was their superior physicality that returned to the fore in the closing stages to deny their Kiwi rivals and keep their own hopes of a first-ever Super Rugby title very much alive.
A bumper home crowd celebrated their side's success in the belief that they would be heading overseas for the final but the Sharks refused to stick to the supposed script. They qualified for the play-offs in sixth place but they have been far from also-rans in the post-season and a week after eclipsing the defending champions the Reds in Brisbane they shrugged off the travel factor once again by accounting for the Stormers.
Unlike the Chiefs, the Stormers failed to sharpen up their act during their week off and were largely dominated by a Sharks side that was rewarded for their superior creativity and battle-hardened defensive work. Another fierce contest was decided thanks to tries from the outstanding JP Pietersen and Louis Ludik with playmaker Frederic Michalak keeping a disappointingly-limited Stormers outfit guessing throughout.
The Sharks' reward is a place in their fourth Super Rugby final where their hopes will surely be tempered by jet-lag and the history books. Only one side has laid claim to the Super Rugby crown on foreign soil with the Crusaders edging out the Brumbies in Canberra in 2000. And only two teams have won the title away from home with the Crusaders coming out on top against at the Blues' Eden Park home in 1998 and the Highlanders' Carisbrook base a year later before the Bulls clinched the 2007 title at the Sharks' Kings Park stadium.
In addition, the Sharks will have to become the first side to win three play-off matches away from home if they are to capture the title. Winning back-to-back away play-off matches has been done only once - by the Crusaders who eclipsed the Reds in the semi-final before accounting for the Highlanders in 1999 with the latest format for the competition providing a third and unprecedented hurdle.
The last-gasp loss to the Bulls was just the most recent slice of Super Rugby agony suffered by the Sharks who as Natal fell to the Blues in the 1996 finale and again to the Brumbies five years later. The Chiefs are also no strangers to such heartache having been blown away by the Bulls in Pretoria in 2009 in a painfully one-sided affair.
The Chiefs have already sworn that there will be no repeat of that 61-17 mauling while one game they would like to re-create is their 18-12 win against the Sharks in their regular season encounter in Durban back in April. On that occasion the Chiefs shackled the competition's joint leading try-scorers on their own patch while notching two of their own.
Form will only take you so far in the heat of a final battle with much responsibility falling on individuals to deliver and both sides are blessed with potential match-winners. None loom larger than a certain Sonny Bill Williams in what will be his last outing in Chiefs colours before quitting the Super Rugby stage in favour of Japan and then rugby league. The scene is set for him to leave an indelible mark on New Zealand rugby that will live long in the memory and pave the way for his return to the competition some way down the track.
Williams may not get everything his way if Taumalolo continues his barn-storming season. The rampaging prop has an incredible nine tries to this name this term and is the leading try-scorer left in the competition with even the fleet-footed Sharks wing Lwazi Mvovo in his wake.
The Sharks are not short of in-form game-breakers themselves with Pietersen arguably not only South Africa's most impressive player this year but the stand out performer in the competition as a whole. Michalak's increasing assurance behind a bullish pack offers further reason for hope while the chance for him to become the first European player to complete a Heineken Cup/Super Rugby double following his previous success with Toulouse will no doubt be a significant lure.
But he has some way to go to match the neck-ware boasted by messrs Bolt and Phelps.
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Graham Jenkins is the Senior Editor of ESPNscrum and you can also follow him on Twitter.