Can Sharks pull it off?

2012-08-04 00:00

THE globe-trotting Sharks, in pursuit of the impossible dream and an elusive first title, face the heavily favoured Chiefs in the Super Rugby final in Hamilton today.

The Sharks, sixth on the final log, have for the last fortnight been reliably informed that they have little chance winning play-off games on the road. But first in Brisbane and then in Cape Town they proved the doomsayers wrong by beating the winners of the Australian and South African conferences.

Today is the big one, facing New Zealand’s strongest team on yet another foreign field with only the slightest sniff of achieving the most remarkable triumph in Super Rugby history. Of course, it is unlikely and only the most loyal give them a snowball’s chance of overcoming debilitating travel demands and beating a robust, physical, fresh and smart Chiefs outfit in front of their capacity home crowd.

But this brings advantages of its own and Sharks coach John Plumtree is tapping into their underdog status.

He said: “We are aware that no one is really giving us a chance so it’s an opportunity to prove a lot of people wrong by picking ourselves up and going again.”

He said that the Sharks, who traditionally prosper in adversity, had prepared carefully.

“We haven’t trained hard but have put a massive emphasis on recovery.”

Assistant coach Grant Bashford agreed: “This has never been done before and, if we were to win, all the sports science theories about travel fatigue would go out the window. We’re in uncharted territory now.”

The Sharks are in their fourth final, the Chiefs in their second and either way a new Super Rugby champion will be crowned today.

The New Zealand Herald’ s Patrick McKendry wrote yesterday that there were five reasons why the Chiefs would win.

First, obviously, he highlighted the “huge travel factor”, which is handicapping the Sharks while the Chiefs have been happily preparing at home. Second, is the recovery of captain and lock Craig Clarke, “a massive boost” for a settled Chiefs squad, while the Sharks have been playing musical chairs in their midfield (and could again shortly before kick-off).

Third, is the improved Chiefs’ defence this season under All Black backline coach Wayne Smith and, fourth, elusive flyhalf Aaron Cruden has been sharper even than Dan Carter all season and the most prolific scorer (234 points) in this year’s competition.

And, finally, there is the playmaking threat of Sonny Bill Williams in midfield, desperate to end his career with the Chiefs in the most memorable way possible.

But what of the Sharks? Winning eight of their last nine games, they have hit pay dirt at the right time. Their forwards, at both the set piece and in the collisions, have been consistently impressive, allowing their ball-carriers (Willem Alberts, Marcell Coetzee and Bismarck du Plessis) to bash their way over the gainline. Their halfbacks, Charl McLeod and Freddie Michalak, a player for the big occasion, have become increasingly influential and JP Pietersen has led the way in providing the sharp finishing. And today they have another playmaker with Pat Lambie back from injury.

The Shark possess genuine talent with seven of their players today (Lambie, Pietersen, Aberts, Coetzee and the entire front-row) shoo-ins for the Springboks Test team.

The Sharks’ only realistic chance of mammoth upset today is if their forwards come to the party and stay the distance. If they can control the set pieces, place the New Zealand pack and their superb inside backs — nippy scrumhalf Tawera Kerr-Barlow, Cruden and Sonny Bill — under constant pressure and win the scrap on the gainline, then the Chiefs will be taken out of their comfort zone.

The Sharks overcame the travel and lasted (just) against the Reds and Stormers because they did not have to play at breakneck pace.

The Chiefs, better attackers, play with fizz and tempo, keeping the ball in hand and running effectively into space. If they boss the gainline and keep the ball in hand for long periods, the tiring Sharks will be in for a torrid second half.

The Sharks supporters will also be hoping that their team, in their emotional win over the Stormers at Newlands, did not play their final last week and can still climb to another level today.

It has been one of the more remarkable fortnights in South African sporting history with the heroics of Hashim Amla, Ernie Els, Cameron van der Burgh and Chad le Clos taking sport off the back pages and on to the front.

The heart says the Sharks, all courage and character, might just add another fairytale chapter today; the head says they will run out of puff in the second half as their body clocks wind down … and, at the stroke of full-time, their golden carriage will turn back into a pumpkin.

TEAMS

Sharks: 15 Pat Lambie, 14 Louis Ludik, 13 JP Pietersen, 12 Paul Jordaan, 11 Lwazi Mvovo, 10 Frederic Michalak, 9 Charl McLeod, 8 Ryan Kankowski, 7 Marcell Coetzee, 6 Keegan Daniel (c), 5 Anton Bresler, 4 Willem Alberts, 3 Jannie du Plessis, 2 Bismarck du Plessis, 1 Tendai Mtawarira.

Replacements: 16 Craig Burden, 17 Wiehahn Herbst, 18 Steven Sykes, 19 Jean Deysel, 20 Jacques Botes, 21 Meyer Bosman, 22 Riaan Viljoen.

Chiefs: 15 Robbie Robinson, 14 Tim Nanai-Williams, 13 Andrew Horrell, 12 Sonny Bill Williams, 11 Asaeli Tikoirotuma, 10 Aaron Cruden, 9 Tawera Kerr-Barlow, 8 Kane Thompson, 7 Tanerau Latimer, 6 Liam Messam, 5 Brodie Retallick, 4 Craig Clarke (c), 3 Ben Tameifuna, 2 Mahonri Schwalger, 1 Sona Taumalolo.

Replacements: 16 Hika Elliot, 17 Ben Afeaki, 18 Michael Fitzgerald, 19 Sam Cane, 20 Brendon Leonard, 21 Jackson Willison, 22 Lelia Masaga.

Referee: Steve Walsh (Australia). Kick-off: 9.35 am (SA time)

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