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Chiefs vs Sharks on Saturday at Waikato Stadium in Hamilton (
Could one imagine a more beautiful finish to this year’s Super 15? We can always regret the absence of Richie McCaw and Dan Carter’s Crusaders, who would have made beautiful finalists, we can always assume that the Stormers deserved to participate, because of their remarkable consistency in the regular season, but the fact remains that these two teams, the Chiefs and the Sharks, are probably the two most brilliant sides of 2012.
Especially, this game will feature two teams that have never been sacred. Unfortunate finalists in 2009 (heavily defeated in the final against the Bulls), the Chiefs hope for a better outcome, and appear better armed than three years ago. For the Sharks, it will be the fourth final, after the first three attempts ended in failure (1996 against the Blues, 2001 against the Brumbies and 2007 against the Bulls). We already know that a new winner will put his name on the trophy – Su^per Rugby is ready for a breath of fresh air.
Don’t forget also that this match will be the last opportunity to watch two fantastic players in Super Rugby: Sonny Bill Williams on one side, and Freddie Michalak on the other. The All Blacks superstar has already signed a lucrative contract that will lead him in the Japanese Top League (with Panasonic Wild Knights), then the NRL (Australian Rugby Championship to 13). French flyhalf Freddie Michalak will make his return to France, to the delight of the people of Toulon.
This final will be refereed by Steve Walsh, an expatriate New Zealanders in Sydney, and therefore who officiates on behalf of the Australian Rugby Union. Walsh is an excellent referee, which tends to favour the attacking side. If the weather conditions are good, we will then have all the ingredients to see a magnificent rugby match.
Opposition of styles
The Chiefs, coached by Dave Rennie, don’t just produce a complete and attractive brand of rugby, they also know how to win, as evidenced by their first place in the New Zealand conference – a very good conference where the Crusaders, Hurricanes and Highlanders tried hard to dethrone the Chiefs of their leader’s seat.
The rugby proposed by the Chiefs is spectacular because they don’t hesitate to take some risks, if ever an opportunity arises. We must also say that they have the players for that. Often, it all starts from the trio at the back – Robbie Robinson, Tim Nanai-Williams and Fijian Asaeli Tikoirotuma, but these three can always rely on the gestures and power of Sonny Bill Williams or the stunning vista of flyhalf Aaron Cruden to make these actions go far.
Make no mistake about it, Dave Rennie’s rugby is anything but a big mess. If the Chiefs can score at any time, they mostly owe their success to their very strong foundations and very disciplined defense.
Up front, it’s solid, and it’s also very mobile, like prop Sona Taumalolo – the future Perpignan player has already scored 9 tries this season. The back-row, led by the great Liam Messam, does a lot of work and often puts the team in the right direction. A player to watch closely behind the pack: young scrum-half Tawera Kerr-Barlow, aged 21. Able to use the least space, his acceleration behind his forward pack often hurt the opponent.
The Sharks, under the command of New Zealand coach John Plumtree, also offer an exciting brand of rugby. Nevertheless, their philosophy is somewhat different from the Chiefs: first, they seek to impose their physical power, thanks to “Beast” Mtawarira, Willem Alberts, or Marcell Coetzee. They only take very little risk and won’t pass the ball to the outside unless they are sure that their game is in place, that foundations are well laid.
But the Sharks, with their aggressive and effective defense, can become as the game progresses a real juggernaut, able to push their opponents to the brink of suffocation. This juggernaut is conducted masterfully by Charl McLeod and Fred Michalak, an admirable halfback combination in terms of maturity, who knows very well how to manage the tempo of a match and when to accelerate.
In the backs, when the horses are released, it can hurt very badly, especially with center or winger JP Pietersen and fullback Louis Ludik, whom nothing seems to stop right now. The Sharks’ attack can also rely on the dynamism of its loose forwards, the science of its halfbacks and the realism of its three quarters line to score when necessary.
Before the semi-final against the Crusaders, we issued some reservations toward the shape of the Chiefs at the end of the season. Their losing streak, at home against the Crusaders (21-28) and on the field of the Hurricanes (28-25), left us believing they had spent too much energy early in the season and they would find an early exit in the playoffs. We were wrong; the Chiefs have managed their semi-final against the Crusaders in a masterful way to win the right to compete for the title.
The dynamic is not really the same for the team based in Durban. Like JP Pietersen or Fred Michalak, Keegan Daniel’s teammates are on fire right now. Not only the Sharks are on the rise since the end of the international break of June, but they clearly give the impression of an aura of invincibility. After their recent success in Brisbane, in quarter-final against the Reds (17-30), then in Cape Town in the semifinals against the Stormers (19-26), the fact that they have to face the Chiefs in Hamilton in the final might not scare them at all.
In the Waikato region, fingers are crossed for Craig Clarke, the second-rower and team captain. Craig Clarke, who is also tipped to be part of the next All Blacks squad, is doubtful with a slight knee sprain. Aside from him, all the Chiefs players are on deck for this crucial match.
While the Sharks recently recovered their fullback Pat Lambie and their center or winger Paul Jordaan (Junior World Champion with the Baby Boks), they must play this final without center Tim Whitehead, who injured his hand. It’s a real blow as Whitehead plays an important role in the Sharks three-quarters line. This withdrawal might give some headaches to John Plumtree, who will have to call a third pair of centers in as many weeks. Not an ideal preparation before the terrifying confrontation against Sonny Bill Williams …
Will the Sharks have recovered from their repeated travels? After going to Australia for a play-off game (in Brisbane on July 21), they returned to South Africa for their semi-final (in Cape Town, July 28). And now they have to return to Oceania, arriving in New Zealand after a short stop over in Sydney, Australia. Between the fatigue and the jet-lag, how will the Durban’s players be on Saturday?
If Marcell Coetzee, Ryan Kankowski or Keegan Daniel are too tired to make an impact on Saturday, the evening will be long for the Sharks. Against them, the Chiefs will try to exploit the smallest errors, the smallest released balls by the South Africans.