Sharks set for slaughter

MARK KEOHANE writes the Chiefs will win in Hamilton on Saturday and win easily.

If they don’t it will be the biggest final’s implosion in the history of the competition.

I haven’t read a South African who isn’t backing the Sharks to take the title. It is written in the stars say some. It is meant to be say others. Forget the travel, it isn’t a factor. The Sharks are operating on adrenalin, momentum and a belief they can’t be beaten.

I don’t buy the emotion of it all. I reckon the Chiefs will win by at least 15, which is what the New Zealand bookies have as a handicap on the final.

How different my thinking would be if the Sharks actually had a week to settle, prepared with more conviction than hope and did not have to negotiate the fatigue that comes with travelling overseas three times in three weeks.

The Sharks were brilliant against the Reds. I picked that win. Historically they play well in Brisbane and the Reds were poor this season. I also picked them to beat the Stormers, because I felt they had the physicality to match the Stormers and the Stormers were never going to be a try-scoring threat. But the way the Sharks hit the wall with seven minutes to play was an indicator that they won’t get through 80 minutes in Hamilton on emotion, passion and belief. They will be huffing and puffing by half time and on the hour the reality of the travel will have set in.

The Sharks are as good a side as the Chiefs, but they are not significantly better. To win this competition, playing the final in another country, requires a squad with few weaknesses and for all the heroics of the last three weeks the Sharks are not the complete package. The Chiefs aren’t either but they had the advantage of playing their semi-final last Friday, they have been at home all week and the only thing that can beat them is a spectacular implosion.

I can’t see it happening because under Dave Rennnie and Wayne Smith they play pragmatic, percentages rugby and they are a team whose focus on defence is never at the expense of attack.

Sonny Bill Williams will be influential. He always is against the Sharks and I can’t see French flyhalf Fred Michalak taking too much contact in Hamilton. Michalak has enjoyed his best month of Super Rugby but he has never been one to mix it with the Kiwis and I don’t see that changing on Saturday.

The first 30 minutes will be intense as both teams have individuals who thrive on physicality, but the Chiefs at 9, 10 and 12 will ask more questions in attack from structured play and they will target Michalak defensively.

There will be individual heroics from the Sharks and world class players like Bismarck du Plessis will front the challenge, but science says the Sharks will be running on empty on the hour.

John Plumtree and Grant Bashford are the best South African coaching combination in the tournament and they are up against the most balanced coaching duo in New Zealand. The Sharks, despite finishing out of the top four, have played the best rugby among South African teams and the Chiefs have been the stand out team in the competition.

Why could there not be a fortnight between semi-final and final? Not just for the Sharks but every year.

South African players who have made the trek to New Zealand previously for semi-finals and the odd final have admitted afterwards that they were just making up the numbers. The same applies to those Kiwi or Aussie teams going to the Republic. The exception has always been the Crusaders, but even they took a beating whenever a semi-final meant travelling to Pretoria.

The Sharks, as I keep on getting reminded, have travelled to Australia and beaten the Aussie Conference Champs. They then travelled to Cape Town and beat the South African Conference Champs. It apparently is written somewhere up above that they will travel to New Zealand and beat the New Zealand Conference Champs. Well I haven’t seen the writing and if the Sharks do succeed it will be the greatest play-offs success in the history of the competition.

Home teams win finals in Super Rugby. History shows that and as is often quoted the only thing man can learn from history is that he never learns from history.

It is fantastic how emphatic the support is for the Sharks but I’ve seen it all before. The blind loyalty in the build-up and then the absolute disbelief when they get pumped.

In 2011 when Peter de Villiers took a second team to play the All Blacks I heard similar talk of a win and when the Boks took a 40-7 hammering there was way too much surprise among the supporters.

Be loyal to your team. Be South African in your support but also know that this final is weighted heavily in favour of the hosts – as is every Super Rugby final.