Chiefs have the edge, but Sharks are on a roll

2012-08-04 00:00

ALTHOUGH I got my predictions wrong last week, I was right when I said that there would be very little separating the two sides in both semi-finals.

The Sharks did exceptionally well to overcome a Stormers side that had an extra week’s rest. You can only take your hat off to the Durban-based side. It really was a fantastic win.

After superb away wins over the Reds and Stormers, there is no doubt they are on a roll. The Sharks really are a top side with a host of experienced players. They’re unpredictable and unstructured in the way they play, they’re physical and they boast a strong defence.

The Sharks may have lost five of their first nine games, but how well they have come back when it has mattered most. Drawing a comparison, how many times have we seen the Crusaders start poorly and then end well?

Winning has enabled the Sharks to generate momentum and confidence, which they will need in abundance in the final against the Chiefs.

Although the Sharks have approached this week well by flying directly to Sydney and are a side that historically travel well, they are certainly going to feel the jetlag and fatigue.

Despite the Chiefs going in as overwhelming favourites, the Sharks are well capable of pulling of an upset. Away from home, however, it will be just that. Had they played the final at King’s Park, I believe it would have been an entirely different story.

The Chiefs have been one of the best, most consistent sides this season, and despite a couple of hiccups at the end of the regular round fixtures, they deservedly beat the Crusaders and warrant a home final.

They are a settled side — without any changes to their line-up this week — and boast a stellar pack of forwards. Liam Messam is a real force, while lock Brodie Retallick and prop Sona Taumalolo are exceptional players.

Tim Whitehead’s injury has forced the Sharks into a midfield reshuffle. While Whitehead has played very well this season, the young Paul Jordaan is an equally accomplished player. Although he is more accustomed to outside centre, I expect him to give a good account of himself.

JP Pietersen has really had a super tournament. He’s a player with real X-factor. He is playing with real confidence at the moment, but what has added a real string to his bow is playing at outside centre. He is a great all-round footballer.

Key for the Sharks will be whether they are able to shackle Sonny Bill Williams. The secret to stifling Williams is stopping him from offloading. That has to be a core defensive focus from the visitors as that is one of the real strengths to his game.

Another key contest is the halfback battle. While Freddie Michalak is the more mercurial playmaker at flyhalf, his opposite number, Aaron Cruden, has developed into an accomplished No 10. In my opinion, he is Dan Carter’s natural successor. He is dangerous on the run, and while not the biggest man, he defends solidly enough, has a booming boot and is a fairly complete player.

However, the way Michalak is playing at the moment, there is no question he can turn a game more than Cruden can.

Michalak has always had the skill, but there now seems to be more of a cutting edge and consistency to his game.

The battle at nine will also be intriguing. The Chiefs’ Tawera Kerr-Barlow is certainly a game breaker for the home side. He is a highly combative scrumhalf and dangerous around the fringes. Charl McLeod will have to be on top of his game.

From a Sharks point of view, it’s crucial they gain the ascendancy upfront. That, however, will be no easy feat, as the Chiefs pack of forwards showed their class against the Crusaders.

However, should the Sharks edge the forward battle and McLeod and Michalak have outstanding games, then they have every prospect of pulling off an unlikely win. Winning the final would be remarkable, as they would then have won an away play-off in each Sanzar country.

The Sharks will be in the right frame of mind and are a composed side with good temperament. The big games do bring out the best in them, but owing to the tremendous amount of travel the Sharks have been through and the fact that the Chiefs are at home; I’m backing the latter to edge it.

While there won’t be more than five to 10 points in it, the smart money has to be on the Chiefs.

Alan Solomons was assistant coach to Nick Mallett when the Springboks went 17 Tests unbeaten. He is EP Kings’ director of rugby and is a consultant to the IRB.

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