As they say in the classics: all good things must come to an end, and this weekend after five months of scintillating action the battle for the Super Rugby title will come down to a winner takes all battle in Hamilton.
In one corner is the home town favourite Chiefs who, after a massive clean out last season, have defied their critics to lead the New Zealand conference and beat the Crusaders last week. It goes without saying that last week’s semi-final win against the Crusaders was their best performance of the season in which they defeated their more fancied opponents both tactically and in the physical contest.
In the other corner are the frequent flyers of the Super 15 in the Sharks from Durban. In the last fortnight they have travelled from Durban to Brisbane to Cape Town to Hamilton which is a heavy load in anyone’s currency. I, for one, expected them to struggle after going through the first two legs of that schedule last weekend but they proved me wrong with another brilliant defensive effort in Cape Town against the Stormers.
As I see it there are four key factors that could swing this fixture in favour of either team. I will deal with each of them in turn:
1. Cruden v Michalak
Aaron Cruden is coming off what can only be described as a career year for him. He solidified his hold on Dan Carter’s number 10 jersey at All Black level when Carter eventually retires and has been the lynchpin for the Chiefs in releasing its dynamic backline. At the start of the season Michalak would probably have not expected to have played a starting roll for the Sharks with young Lambie preferred but by dint of a mix of injury and brilliant form has forced his way into the line up and played a key roll. His tactical nouse has been vital and his uncanny knack of taking 3 points whenever offered has been key to the Sharks final’s run.
2. The front row battle
The Sharks possess one of the most experienced front rows in the competition and all are Springboks. A lot of their forward drive has come from the du Plessis brothers and “the Beast” who not only provide an excellent platform in the scrum but runs like a loose forwards in broken play. The Chiefs’ front row has not been the focus of many plaudits during the season but, much like their Sharks counterparts, have often being dominant in the scrum and in Taumalolo have a bona fide try scorer in the front row.
3. Sonny Bill Williams v JP Pietersen
It would be difficult to find two more entertaining players in the game at the moment than Williams and Pietersen. Williams is playing his last game of Super Rugby (for now) and he will be looking to go out on a winning note. The Crusaders had few answers for his rampages in the midfield last week and his ability to offload in traffic is probably without peer at present. Pietersen is deceptively quick and can sniff out a try in any situation and at any place on the field. He is also an excellent defender who will often be seen in this fixture coming off his wing to shut down a Chiefs’ backline raid.
As I noted in the preamble, the Sharks seem to have spent more time in airport lounges and in the air than they have on the training paddock in recent times. Whilst last week the rigours of their travelling schedule did not seem to affect them, this week is a whole new ball game given that they have again had to make the more difficult west to east route. An added factor here is that the Chiefs have not had to leave New Zealand in the last four weeks so will be fresh, well at least as fresh as one can be after an encounter with the Crusaders.
All in all, there is little between these two sides on paper and this presents as a mouth-watering encounter that is a fitting way to end this Super 15 season.
Whilst the Sharks probably have a bit more starch in defence than the Chiefs, the Chiefs attacking weapons probably hold a slight advantage. In front of their home crowd and with the travel issues noted above playing on my mind I am going to tip the Chiefs to win here and to win their first Super Rugby title.
Steve Walsh is the referee and that is just reward for being the best referee in the competition.
Chiefs by 6