Can The Sharks do the almost unthinkable and bring the Vodacom Super Rugby trophy back to Durban by beating the Chiefs in the final in Hamilton on Saturday?
The last few weeks had been as close to a dogfight as you would find on a rugby field for the men from Durban.
After crushing the Vodacom Bulls (32-10) and the Toyota Cheetahs (34-15) in their final two league matches, they beat the Reds in Brisbane in a tough qualifier (30-17) before returning to South Africa where they were too good for the DHL Stormers in last weekend’s semi-final in Cape Town (26-19).
The upside is that The Sharks qualified for their fourth Vodacom Super Rugby Final. The downside? Another trip halfway across the globe, this time to Hamilton in New Zealand, where that country’s Conference winners, the Chiefs, await.
For Sharks and Springbok hooker Bismarck du Plessis it’s also quite a special occasion, as he will be playing in this 100th Vodacom Super Rugby match – all of them in the colours of The Sharks.
Chiefs v The Sharks
Finally, the Final is here. The Waikato Stadium in Hamilton will host its first Vodacom Super Rugby Final on Saturday when a new champion will be crowned. Thus far, the Chiefs (once) and The Sharks (three times) have only been runners up, but this weekend it will change for one of these two teams.
Who would’ve guessed that two teams that were on the losing side in their opening matches of 2012, would go all the way to the Final?
The Chiefs are the champions of New Zealand despite losing their final two league fixtures. They dug deep in their semi-final and ended up eliminating the most successful team in the history of Vodacom Super Rugby, the Crusaders.
On the other hand, since losing to the Chiefs in Round 9, The Sharks have won eight of their last nine matches – including two superb victories on the road in the Finals Series thus far.
They first flew from Durban to Brisbane where the Reds’ defence of the crown they won last year came to a grinding halt as The Sharks won by 30-17, a score that probably flattered the home side.
Then it was back to Cape Town where Keegan Daniel and his side beat the two-time South African Conference winners, the DHL Stormers, in a pulsating match by 26-19.
And on Sunday they boarded yet another flight across the Indian Ocean…
The Chiefs have not lost at home to South African opposition since 2010, when the DHL Stormers and the Vodacom Bulls won in Hamilton, while The Sharks’ last victory at Waikato Stadium was in 2009 (by 22-19) – the same year in which the Mooloo Men made it all the way to the final.
This year, however, the Chiefs have not been on the losing side in their four matches against South African teams, including a 18-12 win over The Sharks in Durban. Will it change on Saturday?
Six players from the home team are back from the last time they played in a Final – in 2009 Sona Taumalolo, Craig Clarke, Liam Messam, Tanerau Latimer, Hika Elliot and Lelia Masaga were all on the losing side as the Vodacom Bulls smashed The Sharks by 61-17.
And five Sharks players in action on Saturday have felt the same kind of pain when the Vodacom Bulls beat them by 20-19 in 2007’s final in Durban – JP Pietersen, Ryan Kankowski, Jacques Botes, Bismarck du Plessis and Tendai Mtawarira.
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 we’re 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 Fred 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.”
Chiefs: Robbie Robinson, Tim Nanai-Williams, Andrew Horrell, Sonny Bill Williams, Asaeli Tikoirotuma, Aaron Cruden, Tawera Kerr-Barlow, Kane Thompson, Tanerau Latimer, Liam Messam, Brodie Retallick, Craig Clarke (captain), Ben Tameifuna, Mahonri Schwalger, Sona Taumalolo Replacements: Hika Elliot, Ben Afeaki, Michael Fitzgerald, Sam Cane, Brendon Leonard, Jackson Willison, Lelia Masaga.
The Sharks: Pat Lambie, Louis Ludik, JP Pietersen, Paul Jordaan, Lwazi Mvovo, Frederic Michalak, Charl McLeod, Ryan Kankowski, Marcell Coetzee, Keegan Daniel (captain), Anton Bresler, Willem Alberts, Jannie du Plessis, Bismarck du Plessis, Tendai Mtawarira. Replacements: Craig Burden, Wiehahn Herbst, Steven Sykes, Jean Deysel, Jacques Botes, Meyer Bosman, Riaan Viljoen.
Chiefs in Super Rugby playoffs:
Won: 2 (both semi-finals)
Lost: 2 (1 semi-final, 1 final)
The Sharks in Super Rugby playoffs:
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)
Chiefs v The Sharks
Saturday, 4 August, 2012
Kick-off: 19h35 (local time), 09h35 (SA time)
Venue: Waikato Stadium, Hamilton, New Zealand
Referee: Steve Walsh (Aus)
Assistant Referees: Craig Joubert (SA), Keith Brown (NZ)
TMO: Garratt Williamson
Note: 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 halftime; 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.