JON CARDINELLI watched the Chiefs deliver a masterclass in power and composure to crush the Sharks 37-6 in Saturday’s Super Rugby final.
Some will list travel fatigue as decisive. Some will complain that referee Steve Walsh was too lenient on the hosts. Some might say the clamour of cowbells and the driving rain made for a perfect storm of pressure that squeezed the fight out of the Sharks.
But the external factors were never decisive.
The Chiefs rocked up in rampant mood. Their forwards absorbed the early pressure, and their inside backs played outstanding finals football. They ran away with the game in the second half, but the result was secured in the first.
The Sharks needed to bank early points if they were ever going to win this final. Their forwards clattered into the collisions during a bruising first quarter and their line speed on defence kept the Chiefs on the back foot.
But a three-point return during that period was never going to be enough. They coughed up too much possession on attack, and it was a series of missed opportunities early in the piece that they were made to regret.
The Chiefs’ performance in that first half highlighted the tactical nous of the coaching staff, as well as the efficiency of the team’s key decision makers. They played for territory but they also kept the Sharks’ defence guessing with a series of grubbers and chip kicks.
It was a deft nudge by Aaron Cruden that sparked the Chiefs’ first try. Sharks fullback Pat Lambie was caught in two minds, and in the end he made the wrong decision in allowing Cruden’s chip kick to bounce.
The Chiefs, as they have done all season and managed to do on several occasions during this final, chased well and forced the breakdown turnover. From here, the Sharks’ defence was compromised, and centre Sonny Bill Williams took full advantage, breaking two tackles to take play up to the opposition 22.
From there the ball flew out to the left where it was Chiefs backs versus Sharks forwards. Tim Nanai-Williams obliged with a score that spelled trouble for the Sharks, even at that early stage.
For all the talk of fatigue, the Sharks’ intensity at the collisions never seemed to flag. And yet, they struggled to adapt to Walsh’s calls at the breakdown.
Their defensive work was outstanding for the most part, but they made some poor decisions with ball in hand and failed to stretch the Chiefs’ defence.
Their set piece was expected to rattle that of the Chiefs, but the hosts overcame some early lineout wobbles to compete strongly and force several turnovers of their own.
The Sharks also struggled to win set-piece possession in the Chiefs half, and were completely outplayed in the battle for territory. The Chiefs peppered the Sharks in the first half, and the pressure told.
Cruden, who would miss a couple of goal kicks later in the game, was accurate in front of poles during those first 40 minutes. It allowed the Chiefs to build a commanding lead, and before the Sharks knew it, they were 13-3 down.
It was a massive deficit considering the conditions. It was a gap they were never going to close with the Chiefs dominating the collisions and winning the kicking game.
The Sharks suffered a further setback when Kane Thompson crashed over from a five-metre scrum early in the second half. At 20-3, the visitors were dead and buried.
They attempted to play more expansively in an effort to close the gap but, as the final scoreline suggests, this only played into the Chiefs’ hands. The Waikato outfit fed off the Sharks’ errors and scored two more tries.
The performance was emphatic, and the victory well deserved. The Chiefs have played some brilliant rugby at times this season, but they have also shown themselves to be one of the best defensive teams.
The tactical excellence of their halfback pairing hasn’t received enough credit, and Cruden and Tawera Kerr-Barlow certainly played a decisive role in winning this final.
It’s an embarrassing end for the Sharks, who have also produced some encouraging and balanced performances in 2012. In the end, they will lament the early season failures that forced them to travel so extensively in the play-offs.
The Chiefs are the Super Rugby champions for the first time in the competition’s history. They are worthy of the title. They won the New Zealand conference. They won the right to host a semi-final and, thanks to the Stormers’ home defeat, a final.
Their consistency allowed them to do so, and it was also a consistent performance that allowed them to beat the Sharks in the decider.