Rugby Union: Chiefs and Sharks to contest Super 15 final
South Africa’s Sharks have criss-crossed the globe to reach the final of the Super 15 rugby tournament and now face one last, long journey to take on the Waikato Chiefs in the first-ever final to be played in Hamilton.
The Sharks were forced to travel 7,000 miles from Durban to Brisbane for their quarter-final against the defending champion Queensland Reds and, having passed that formidable obstacle, flew another 7,000 miles to Cape Town where on Saturday they beat the top-ranked Stormers 26-19.
The Sharks will board another flight this week for a further 7,000-mile flight to Auckland followed by a 80-mile bus trip to Hamilton on New Zealand’s North Island.
The Chiefs reached the final for only the second time in 17 years with a 20-17 win over the seven-times champion Canterbury Crusaders.
The victories of the Chiefs and Sharks over more highly rated opponents led to the least likely of finals in the least likely of venues. Hamilton, a rural town south of Auckland, is New Zealand’s fifth-largest city and the Chiefs draw their players from the smallest population base among the five Kiwi franchises.
On Friday, against all odds and expectations, the Chiefs outscored the Crusaders two tries to one, with all three tries coming in the first half. Prop Sona Taumalolo scored his ninth try of the season in his 50th match for the Chiefs to remain the leading New Zealand try scorer in the tournament.
When flanker Liam Messam ran on to a short offload from Sonny Bill Williams to score Waikato’s second try in the 32nd minute, he gave the Chiefs their largest leading margin of 11 points at 17-6. But the Crusaders hit back with a try to centre Ryan Crotty on the stroke of half-time, closing the margin to 17-11 at the interval and setting up a nerve-wracking second half in which the only points came from penalties. Crusaders No 10 Dan Carter had a chance to take the match to extra time with a penalty four minutes from time, but his 45-metre kick fell short.
“Their try before half-time certainly made the game interesting,” Chiefs captain Craig Clarke said. “They talk about good teams scoring before and after half-time and we talked about having to come out in the second half and be strong.”
The Sharks also defended with courage to hold out a late rally by the Stormers and to book their final place. The Stormers seemed out of the match when J P Pietersen’s try gave the Sharks a 14-point lead with 20 minutes left, but Gio Aplon scored for the Stormers and the home team pressed relentlessly for the try that would have levelled the scores.
The Sharks held on to complete an astonishing late season rally after having seemed almost out of the reckoning with only weeks left. But they won three of their last four matches, beating both the Stormers and three-times champions the Bulls, to grab the sixth and last play-off place.
They then toppled the Australian and South African conference winners to reach the final and must now beat the New Zealand conference champions to clinch their first title. Neither the Sharks nor Chiefs have ever won a Super rugby title.
Coach John Plumtree said the Sharks had resolved during the break in the Super 15 schedule for June test matches – three weeks before the end of the regular season – to throw everything into a last-ditch bid to make the play-offs. He said: “We gathered confidence and grew a bit at the same time… it snowballed.
“The team started believing in themselves about 20 to 30 per cent more than when we were playing before the international break.
“We were already playing knockout rugby, basically, several weeks ago so it hardened us, and the leadership grew with that,” added Plumtree.
“To go to Queensland and win last week and then come here to do it again was always going to be a huge task for any side. I’m really proud of how the boys have stood up.”
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Sunday 19 May 2013
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