From apparent no-hopers who were beaten badly at home in their first game of the season, to Super Rugby champions, the Chiefs have had a remarkable season.
That defeat by the Highlanders at Waikato Stadium in February seems a long time ago and would have made tonight’s victory over the Sharks at the same venue packed with more than 25,000 fans who braved the rain all the sweeter.
They lost four top players to injury in that first game too, but, despite that blow and question marks over their forwards they grew to be easily the best and most consistent New Zealand team and deservedly took out their first Super title.
This game shouldn’t have been close given all the travelling the Sharks have had to do, but in finals you never really know – the Chiefs’ 61-17 defeat by the Bulls in Pretoria, their first experience of a final, came as a big shock to them.
Finals are usually defensive arm wrestles and can turn on the smallest mistake, and, unfortunately for the South Africans, they made plenty under extreme pressure.
The Sharks turned up with big guns in their forward pack – guys like the Du Plessis brothers in the front row and Tendai Mtawarira, Willem Alberts, Ryan Kankowski and Keegan Daniel, but they were undermined by the relentless Chiefs’ pressure, much like the Crusaders were last weekend. As it turned out, the South African heavy artillery fired all of their shots against their countrymen the Stormers in Cape Town in their semifinal.
With first-five Freddie Michalak running cold, their danger men out wide such as Paul Jordaan, JP Pietersen and Lawazi Mvovo, saw little ball and virtually none on the front foot.
Although it took 20 minutes for the Chiefs to find their rhythm, once they did there was no coming back for the men from Durban and the final 20 were a virtual victory parade.
The Sharks had started well; they enjoyed a territorial advantage and they looked organised defensively. The home side on the other hand looked almost unsure of themselves, as if they were the ones who had criss-crossed the Indian Ocean over the past three weeks.
The Sharks took advantage with an early penalty to Michalak but the Chiefs worked their way into the game and settled on a tactic that paid dividends in the drizzly conditions _ the kick.
An Aaron Cruden chip was fumbled by Springboks fullback Pat Lambie, Andrew Horrell featured several times as did Williams, before Tim Nanai-Williams ghosted through a gap and over for a converted try. Soon after, a cross-field punt, as referee Steve Walsh played advantage, almost found the try scorer.
Bismarck du Plessis’ ill discipline saw a penalty reversed and his side paid with three points as Cruden converted.
After the break it took five minutes for the Chiefs to put the game beyond doubt. Michalak’s attempted in-goal clearance was charged down by Craig Clarke and No8 Kane Thompson scored from the resulting scrum.
With the score 20-3 and the Sharks now bumbling their way around the field, it was virtually game over.
Michalak chipped over a penalty but the Sharks couldn’t get out of their half _ coach John Plumtree ringing the changes in desperation _ and substitute wing Lelia Masaga gratefully received a bouncing ball to dance his way over for a converted try.
Chiefs heroes? Their entire forward pack deserves plaudits for the way they have punched above their weight this season. Horrell is a real find at centre and Cruden seems more composed every week. Sonny Bill Williams? He dearly wanted a try in his last game and he duly got it under the posts with three minutes to go. A perfect way to finish for him and the Chiefs.
Chiefs 37 (Tim Nanai-Williams, Kane Thompson, Lelia Masaga, Sonny Bill Williams tries; Aaron Cruden 4 cons, 3 pens) Sharks 6 (Freddie Michalak 2 pens) HT: 13-3
Source – APNZ