Chiefs, Sharks battle for Super supremacy
WELLINGTON – Rugby’s Super 15 is set to crown a new champion tomorrow as the Waikato Chiefs and Coastal Sharks – both unfancied at the start of the year – vie to become just the sixth name engraved on the prestigious trophy.
Long-time underachievers the Chiefs and Sharks both played an adventurous brand of rugby to make a mockery of the form book and reach this weekend’s final in Hamilton.
It’s not completely unfamiliar territory with the Sharks having contested three finals without success and the Chiefs suffered the biggest loss in Super finals history, going down 61-17 to the Northern Bulls three years ago.
The Chiefs have one of the youngest squads in the competition and even surprised new coach Dave Rennie as they won 12 games in the regular season, breaking the 11-game New Zealand record held by the Crusaders.
“Realistically from the start we had a goal of winning the championship, but we thought it might be a couple of years away with the young guys we had, but they have found their feet quickly at this level,” Rennie said.
The Sharks, meanwhile, have survived a punishing schedule to reach Hamilton, beating the Australian and South African conference champions in the knockout stages to give them an air of confidence.
“I’m really positive about this team and the future. They’ve been outstanding in the last couple of weeks, the character and leadership has really grown,” said coach John Plumtree.
“No one’s probably expected us to get to this point. We’re doing it the hard way, it’s galvanising us, it’s giving us confidence.”
Crucial for the Sharks is the return to full fitness of key forwards Tendai “The Beast” Mtawarira, Willem Alberts and Ryan Kankowski as well as backs Paul Jordaan and Patrick Lambie.
The Chiefs received a boost late yesterday when inspirational captain Craig Clarke passed a fitness test, allowing Rennie to name the same side that defeated the Crusaders in last week’s semi-final.
Clarke, a key element in the Chiefs’ performance this season, had been in doubt after suffering a medial ligament injury, which normally involves a six to eight week lay-off.
For the Chiefs it will also be a farewell for Sonny Bill Williams whose partnership with halves Aaron Cruden and Tawera Kerr-Barlow has been a significant factor in the team’s success.
Williams admitted to struggling to keep his emotions in check as he looks to add a Super title to his World Cup medal before starting his return to the rugby league via a brief contract in Japan.
“Emotions tend to eat you up and next thing you know you’ll be sitting at home awake at night not being able to sleep, so you’ve just got to push it all to one side. Hopefully when the final hooter comes you can let it all out.”
The previous winners of the Super rugby title are the Auckland Blues, Canterbury Crusaders, ACT Brumbies, Northern Bulls and Queensland Reds. – Nampa-AFP