Super Rugby glory up for grabs
August 2, 2012
The Chiefs' Sonny Bill Williams is shackled during his side's victory over the Sharks during the regular season © Getty Images
The Chiefs and the Sharks will go head-to-head for the southern hemisphere crown at the Waikato Stadium in Hamilton on Saturday night where a new Super Rugby champion will be crowned.
The hosts enter the clash having set the standard for much of the regular season that saw them claim the New Zealand Conference title and finish as runners-up to the Stormers in the overall standings. They then booked their place in the title decider with a narrow victory over Kiwi rivals the Crusaders in last weekend's semi-finals.
The Sharks' progress to the showpiece event was not so straightforward with their place in the play-offs not confirmed until the last round of the regular season. They then began an epic post-season schedule that saw them first account for Australian Conference winners the Reds before stunning the Stormers in the final four.
Chiefs - Player to Watch: In what will be his last appearance for the Chiefs before heading to Japan and then back to rugby league, all eyes are sure to be on centre Sonny Bill Williams. Can he deliver a leaving present or two to remember?
Chiefs - Team News: The Chiefs are unchanged from their semi-final victory over the Crusaders after lock and captain Craig Clarke shrugged off concerns about a knee injury. Four current or former All Blacks have been named among the replacements including hooker Hika Elliot, Cane, scrum-half Brendon Leonard and winger Lelia Masaga.
Sharks - Player to Watch: French fly-half Frederic Michalak will bid the Sharks farewell after this game with Top 14 side Toulon awaiting his arrival but can the in-form playmaker leave on a winning note and join the exclusive Super Rugby/Heineken Cup winners club thanks to his previous success with Toulouse?
Sharks - Team News: The loss of centre Tim Whitehead to injury in the wake of their semi-final victory was softened by the return of Patrick Lambie and Paul Jordaan who have both been drafted into the line-up at fullback and No.12 respectively. Riaan Viljoen drops the bench as a result while hooker Bismarck du Plessis is poised to make his 100th Super Rugby appearance.
Key Battle: It goes without saying that the bruising battle up front will be pivotal but what they do with what ball they can secure will be pivotal. Step forward Chiefs and All Blacks fly-half Aaron Cruden and his Sharks and France counterpart Frederic Michalak. Have they been practising their drop goals?
Trivia: These sides are no strangers to Super Rugby Final disappointment. The Chiefs were beaten by the Bulls in the 2009 finale while the Sharks came up short against the Blues in the 1996, the Brumbies in 2001 and the Bulls in 2007.
Stats: Sona Taumalolo's try for the Chiefs in last Friday's semi-final took his total for this season's tournament to nine, a new record for a forward in a season. The previous holder was Andrew Blowers who crossed eight times for the Auckland Blues (including one in their victorious Final against Natal) in 1996, professional Super Rugby's inaugural season.
"We feel if we can get a big enough lead, they can't come back at us."
"We are playing better than we were then so if we can get up physically for this game then anything can happen."
Prediction: Expect the Sharks' gruelling travel schedule to finally take a toll and the Chiefs to exploit on their way to their first Super Rugby title.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
The latest Week in Pictures takes in a fiery East Midlands derby and all the action from the Aviva Premiership and Top 14
The rolling maul is becoming an increasingly potent attacking weapon. Conor O'Shea looks at the difficulties of stopping it
The news of James Horwill, Adam Ashley-Cooper and Dan Carter's respective transfers will open the floodgates, writes Tom Hamilton