After 124 matches, played over the course of 5 months we have arrived at the final match of the season. Who will be crowned Super Rugby champions this Saturday? Only 2 teams are left, with the Sharks and the Chiefs fighting for the silverware. Who has the best chance to win it? Will experience play a role in the outcome of the final? What about the home-advantage? How did the teams get this far? Lets find out!
The home-side will host their first ever Super Rugby final after finishing 2nd on the log and the Stormers losing to the Sharks a day later. When the Chiefs started the season, it didn't look like they would still be playing in late July. The season began with a fair number of new guys joining and some older ones saying good-bye. Stephen Donald, Sitiveni Sivivatu, Mils Muliaina and Aled de Malmanche all left and Dave Rennie decided to re-build. Bigger roles were handed to Liam Messam, Craig Clarke and Richard Kahui and despite the latter being injured for almost the entire season, the team responded well to the changes. Mo Schwalger and Robbie Robinson came over from the Highlanders, Aaron Cruden made the move from Wellington, but the biggest impact was made by Sonny Bill Williams. The big center, who played for the Crusaders the previous season, has improved his skillset and brings a lot of versatility to the backline. Having scored several tries and breaking the line numerous times, he is a real threat for the opposition. He is hoping he can win a final after losing one last season.
In the first match of the season, the Highlanders came to Hamilton and took the points home after overcoming a 19-9 deficit with 2 tries in 5 minutes. A long, hard season was expected for the Chiefs. Could they gel into a winning team? Or would it take too much time and would this count as a rebuilding year? A week later, the Blues were the opposition, again at home. This time the Chiefs managed to add 5 points on the log, mainly due to Sona Taumalolo, the loose-head prop who scored his first of many tries this season. Week 3 held the best result of the season up until the play-offs. The Chiefs, playing the Crusaders in Napier, showed up to give their opponents a tough night. Taumalolo again scored a try, together with Liam Messam. Sonny Bill Williams, playing against his old team-mates, was the reason the Chiefs won on the night. Gaining almost 100 metres with 9 runs, he was the most dangerous attacker on the Chiefs side and by drawing defenders with him, he created space for his teammates to cut through the defensive lines. In the end, the Chiefs won 19-24, giving the Crusaders one of only two home losses this season. The win was the highlight of the Chiefs season and one of their impressive results.
So how about the Sharks? Well, there are a lot of similarities between the two sides. The Sharks also lost their season opener (18-13 at Loftus Versfeld against the Bulls) and the Sharks also recorded their biggest win against a conference rival (25-20 against the Bulls at home). So how about the stats? Both teams scored 47 tries this season, the Sharks conceded 1 more (31) than the Chiefs (30) while the point difference of both teams is shockingly similar, +88 (Sharks) against +86 (Chiefs). The Sharks made some changes in the squad as well. While veterans Adi Jacobs, Stefan Terblanche and John Smit left, the 2012 season was the first time the rugby world met Marcell Coetzee, Anton Bresler and Jandre Marais, while Keegan Daniel, Louis Ludik, JP Pietersen, Beast Mtawarira and Bismarck du Plessis stepped forward, leading the team. The team aquired a couple of new players as well. Tim Whitehead joined the Sharks from Cape Town, where the former Stormer was never really in the mix with Jean de Villiers, Jaque Fourie and Juan de Jongh covering his position. In Durban, he showed his skills and became a shoe-in for the center position. Only later on in the season, when Francois Steyn joined the team, he moved to 13, accommodating the Springbok center. Another player who was new to the Durban scene was Riaan Viljoen. Well, he is not really new since he came through the Sharks academy almost 10 years ago, before playing for the Valke and Griquas in the Currie Cup and Cheetahs in Super Rugby. The versatile full-back, who also plays on the wing, had trouble finding his form and due to injury has not yet done what he was expected to do.
When playing the Lions, the Sharks missed one of the best opportunities to end a bit higher on the log. They missed a big number of tackles and were too slow when approaching rucks. A lot of people expected the Sharks to win in Johannesburg, but from the start the Sharks were chasing the Lions. Because of the Sharks never being able to even take the lead in that match, most fans were unsure if the Sharks would still make the play-offs. The biggest win for the Sharks was in round 17. In a match where only a bonuspoint win was enough, the Shark pack showed how good they can perform under pressure. With the Reds, Hurricanes, Bulls, Brumbies and even the Highlanders still in the race for the play-offs, the team scored their tries with ease. Despite having more missed tackles their overall performance was amazing. With almost 20 offloads and Coetzee running at will, the Sharks were just too much to handle. The 4th and final try was scored in the final minutes of the match, giving the Sharks the well-deserved bonuspoint to keep them in the race for the play-offs. If the Sharks manage another performance like this, the Durban-faithful might be in for a treat.
The first match between the two teams this season came when the Chiefs were travelling to South Africa. The second match of the tour was in Durban against the Sharks. In a match that was dictated by rain, the Chiefs took the match by the throat and did not let go. In a match that was equal in many ways, the Chiefs just refused to concede a try while scoring 2 themselves. Their line-out was superb, where they even managed to steal 3 of the Sharks line-outs. Despite conceding more penalties, they stayed calm and in the end the overall performance gave them the win. With Aaron Cruden and 22-year old Augustine Pulu giving the Chiefs quick tries, it showed that the Chiefs can be lethal when they need to be. Can the Chiefs win the title playing the Sharks at home? Who knows. Last season the 2 teams met in Hamilton and it ended in a 15-12 win with only penalties. This match was also dictated by rain pouring down. If the 2 teams can play on a dry pitch, the match will be a lot more interesting.
The Sharks have played in 3 finals before. They lost in Auckland, Canberra and Durban, making them the most successful team without winning the Cup and at the same time the most unlucky team. A 4th final in 16 years of Super Rugby means they have the experience as a team, but what about the players? While a couple of them were present in 2007, several were not in the starting line-up. Only Ryan Kankowski, JP Pietersen, Jacques Botes and Francois Steyn (ineligible for the play-offs) played from the start that day in 2007, while Bismarck du Plessis and Tendai Mtawarira came off the bench later on. The Sharks lost to the Bulls 19-20 by a last minute try. The Chiefs have also lost a final against the Bulls. In 2009, the Chiefs travelled to Loftus and never had a chance. A 61-17 score was the result but Lelia Masaga and Mils Muliaina did score tries for the Chiefs. How many players are still with the Chiefs? Masaga still is with the team, together with Richard Kahui, Liam Messam, Sona Taumalolo and current captain Craig Clarke. All of them played that day. Will the experience of playing in the final help? Or is this one just too close to call? And what about the travel factor? Is travelling from Durban to Brisbane, to Cape Town, to Hamilton too much? 25 time-zones in 3 weeks is a lot, but if they win, it will be well deserved after playing 19 matches of which 11 are on the road. It will be a thrilling encounter, hopefully without any rain and with 80 minutes of pure passion. May the best team win!
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