Home > Rugby, The Drawing Board > The Drawing Board – Super Rugby Final Preview

The Drawing Board – Super Rugby Final Preview

In order to complete their fairy-tale journey to the top of the Super Rugby podium, the Sharks must complete their 30,000 mile course. Whilst they have been racking up the air miles in the past few weeks, they have also collected a couple of big – name scalps along the way in the form of the defending champion Reds and the table topping Stormers.  Both victories have come during a formbook-shredding and Indian Ocean-spanning journey that not many saw coming. One final long haul trip awaits them 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 favourites will be the Chiefs, who have rediscovered their mojo after a great victory over the more fancied Crusaders. They 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.  The NZ conference was safely secured for the season, but they managed to lose their top spot to the Stormers.  The rest week proved to be the key for the Chiefs, as they managed to refocus, revitalise and plan their revenge for the Crusaders.

The same was expected of the Stormers, who would have hosted the final had they qualified.  However the Sharks have refused to follow the script in the playoffs. 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.

As a reward for their endeavours, the Sharks will have to stare history in the face and hope to become the first Super Rugby side to win three away playoff matches.  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. 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. Added to this is the fact that 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.

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 the mauling that they received on that night, whilst one game they would like to re-create is victory over 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. However, form will only get you to a point in the final. Much will depend on both sides 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 Soma 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 JP Pietersen arguably not only South Africa’s most impressive player this year but the stand out performer in the competition as a whole. Freddy 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.

The Sharks will want to hit the ground running and build up a substantial lead before they inevitably tire in the second spell. This is going to be hard with the Chiefs defence in fine form. This is going to be a titanic battle, with both sides not wanting to give an inch. I am going to go out on a limb here, and pick the Sharks to take it. Not by much though. Not by much.

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