Sharks head out for Mission Impossible 3 and squad, coach are up for it

2012-07-30 00:00

THE Sharks left Johannesburg yesterday, bound for Hamilton in New Zealand where they hope to complete their Mission Impossible Trilogy with a fairytale victory over the Chiefs in the Super Rugby final on Saturday.

It would, of course, be the longest of long shots: victory by a jet-lagged outfit over the New Zealand conference winners who advanced to the final by impressively dumping the seven-time champion Crusaders.

The Chiefs, after their Friday triumph in the first semi-final, have an extra day to prepare while the Sharks will spend much of the week travelling and resting.

But the Sharks, in beating first the Reds in Brisbane and then the Stormers in Cape Town over the past fortnight, have shown they are capable of defying the most outrageous odds.

Coach John Plumtree could not praise his charges enough for the quality of their weekend win, which makes them only the second team in Super Rugby history to win back-to-back play-off games away from home.

(The last team to do so were the 1999 Crusaders who took the Super 12 title after first beating the Reds in Brisbane and the Highlanders in the final at Carisbrook).

“The backs are there, and the pack’s pretty good,” Plumtree said. “I’m more excited about this team than I ever have been, I reckon.”

The Sharks, remarkably, escaped Newlands without injury — and a 26-19 win — and they are travelling Down Under with their first-choice squad, adding backs Pat Lambie and Paul Jordaan to Saturday’s match 22.

Still, the Chiefs are delighted at not having to make the expected long haul to Cape Town to face the log-topping Stormers in hostile surrounds. Chiefs coach Dave Rennie said yesterday that the Sharks win had provided his side with a massive advantage of playing in front of their home support.

“There are a lot of reasons why it’s great to be home [for the final]. Obviously we don’t have to travel so we get to sleep in our own beds otherwise we would already on the plane to Johannesburg.”

It also means the Chiefs can delay a decision on their captain and lock Craig Clarke who “tweaked a knee” against the Crusaders.

But the Sharks have shown twice inside a week that they can trek and win, first defying logic and the travel factor in beating the Australian conference winners the Reds; and then flying home to beat the top team on the Super Rugby log, the Stormers, in Cape Town.

“It was a fantastic result,” said Plumtree.

“The boys were just outstanding. It needed to be a brave performance from us. I’m proud of the way the boys held on to win in the end.”

Plumtree made a successful late change, including Riaan Viljoen at fullback, “because we needed a long kicking game” in the battle for territory.

He admitted that the Sharks tired in the final quarter “but the players coming off the bench, Jean Deysel, Meyer Bosman, Jacques Botes and Steven Sykes, all brought energy late in the game.”

Plumtree said the squad would spend the early part of the week in Sydney (Coogee Beach) before flying to New Zealand on Friday.

“We just want to get them in beds as quickly as possible in Sydney and also do some preparation there, try to get some freshness back before going to New Zealand. We’ll train when we feel the boys feel they are ready.”

He admitted jet lag was a problem.

“I know personally the jet lag when travelling there is terrible. I have to take sleeping tablets most nights for a week but the players are younger and they get over it quicker. It’s not ideal but we will try to prepare smartly and get these boys back up. We’re representing South Africa now.”

Plumtree said the Sharks were improving with every game; they have now won eight of their last nine.

“We have gathered confidence and grown a bit at the same time. It has all just snowballed.

“The team started believing in themselves after that June break for internationals.

“We were already playing knockout rugby, basically, several weeks ago so it hardened us, and the leadership grew with that. I’m really proud of how the boys have stood up.”

And no one epitomised that character and courage more than hooker Bismarck du Plessis. The robust Sharks hooker was knocked silly after clattering into the 120 kg Stormers lock Eben Etzebeth in the opening minutes and Sharks’ hearts would have sunk with him.

But Du Plessis stood up, dusted himself off and started all over again, carrying the fight to the Stormers and picking up his lineout jumpers with unerring accuracy.

He seemed close to tears of joy at the final whistle while the distress in the Stormers camp was obvious with Bok wing Bryan Habana — who ironically had sunk the Sharks on the final whistle in the 2007 final when playing for the Bulls — sobbing uncontrollably.

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