After two local derbys in the semi-finals on the weekend, the protagonists for the 2012 Super XV final have been found, with the Sharks adding to their extensive collection of Frequent Flyer points as they head to Hamilton to meet the Chiefs.
While the Chiefs had won the New Zealand conference and had the home-ground advantage they found themselves listed as underdogs when they hosted the Crusaders in semi-final number one, the Cantabrian’s reputation as play-off specialists obviously preceding them.
Indeed, it was a reputation the Red & Blacks failed to live up to, producing an uninspiring, error-laden performance to bow out of the competition 20-17. It was a classic sudden-death encounter, with both sides letting nerves get the better of them, and neither side ever asserting any real dominance.
The Chiefs walked a fine line between physical aggression and dirty play as they looked to get under the skin of the experienced Crusaders, and at another time silly tactics such as those displayed by young prop Ben Tameifuna, when he strolled across a lineout to shove All Black captain Richie McCaw, could have been more costly.
But the real difference between the two sides was the game-breaking ability of the Chiefs backline, and the way they seized any opportunity to break out of their own territory and turn attack in to defense. That, and the visitor’s inability to combat it.
Aaron Cruden, Sonny Bill Williams, Robbie Robinson and Andrew Horrell all made telling breaks, while Crusaders stars Dan Carter, Robbie Freuan and Israel Dagg had uncharacteristically poor performances. But, reminiscent of the Super 12 final of 1998, when the Crusaders somehow kept within striking distance of the Blues and gave themselves the chance to win their first title, there were some breathless moments for the Chiefs as full-time neared. However, the Crusaders were never on-song, and didn’t deserve to snatch a win, with Matt Todd’s handling error to end the match summing up a bumbling performance from a ‘champion’ side that has now failed to convert play-off berths in to championship wins for four consecutive years.
Over in Africa, the Stormers, who had finished the regular season as the number one qualifier, hosted the Sharks, who had thumped the Reds despite having to travel from Durban for the privilege of doing so. The Stormers were striving to secure a home final, but, like the Chiefs, had struggled for consistency in the dying stages of round-robin play, while the Sharks brought red-hot form to the encounter.
Brushing aside travel fatigue the visitors played with their trademark style, combining aggressive defense with silky skills right across the park, and it was no surprise when they were the first to score.
Leading 13-6 as the sides took the Newlands pitch for the second spell the visitors never really looked like losing, and although the Stormers fought bravely and were within striking distance when the final whistle sounded, they lacked the flair and inventiveness to penetrate the rock-solid defensive line of the Sharks, the 26-19 scoreline a fair reflection of a tense, captivating encounter.
And so we look to the final. Just like the 2011 Crusaders, who won fans across the globe as a result of their courageous campaign in the face of an arduous travel schedule, the Sharks have earned un-told respect over recent weeks. But while the Crusaders openly admit that the final was one trip to the airport, one plane ride, and one night in a hotel bed too many as they rolled over for the Reds in a lacklustre final performance in Brisbane, the Sharks will be hoping to go one better.
To do so they’ll not only have to quickly shake off the effects of another long journey, but manage to block out a fiercely parochial home crowd in Hamilton. Rugby Park is an intimate ground, and an intimidating place to visit when the passionate locals start ringing the cow-bells.
And while the Chiefs haven’t nudged the lever in to top-gear for a few weeks now they have undeniable game-breaking ability in spades. The Sharks will be up for the physical confrontation, of that there is no doubt. The question is, can they contain Cruden and Sonny Bill, or will flair and panache be enough to snare the Chiefs’ first ever Super Rugby title?