It has been a long, winding and wonderful road, but the finale of the Super Rugby campaign is here. A competition that has kept us enthralled since February is at its end. After exceptional efforts at the weekend, only two totally deserving sides remain to fight for the ultimate prize in southern hemisphere club rugby. Saturday’s battle at Waikato Stadium promises plenty. Strap yourselves in.
Defying their prestigious opponents on Friday evening, the Chiefs were the first to book a spot in the season’s decider. Led by ferocious physicality from props Ben Tameifuna and Sona Taumalolo, who also crossed the whitewash in the first half for his ninth try of an incredible year, the hosts’ defensive display startled the Crusaders.
Across 80 absorbing minutes, fiery tackles flew in. Liam Messam, in the form of his life, seemed a man possessed. Along with back-row colleagues Tanerau Latimer and Kane Thompson, he ensured his beloved Chiefs justified their lofty league position. A week off did not diminish the attacking fluency of Dave Rennie’s men either – Aaron Cruden produced moments of magic, while Sonny Bill Williams mixed sleight of hand with battering-ram carries.
Elsewhere, Tawera Kerr Barlow laid a further marker down for an All Black cap with more spikiness and Robbie Robinson was, at times, electric. Big-match experience deserted the seven-time champions, even Dan Carter wilting under a toe-curling barrage. The world’s most celebrated stand-off made a host of elementary errors and epitomised the plight of his side – battered, bruised and bundled out of the competition.
Around 30 hours later, another exceptional Sharks showing handed the Stormers a first home defeat. Globetrotting across the hemisphere over the past fortnight, the men from Natal have won many hearts with their all-out approach. Once more, livewire flanker Keegan Daniel led a team whose whole-hearted determination at Newlands was simply overwhelming.
Like the greatest sides over the years, the Sharks struck a crucial blow just before half-time. After a pin-point up-and-under by Riaan Viljeon caused havoc, Louis Ludik scooted over to pull his teammates clear. When JP Pietersen glided over for a fantastic score on the hour, it appeared as though a comfortable win was on the cards. There is clearly no such thing in a semi-final.
Calling on every ounce of the tenacious winning mentality they have garnered throughout the year, the Stormers shed their shackles and threw caution to the wind. As the Sharks’ legs grew heavier, the hosts came unthinkably close to what would have been an amazing comeback. Pocket dynamo Gio Aplon scythed across the whitewash and Peter Grant was typically accurate from the tee, setting up a hugely tense climax. In the end though, the Sharks scraped through.
Heading back over to the Antipodes, they have one more assignment left. Of course, it isn’t an easy one but you get the feeling that the Sharks wouldn’t have it any other way. The hostility in Hamilton will be nigh on unbearable, but Willem Alberts, Ryan Kankowski and co. possess enough power to stand firm.
Outside of a truly mouth-watering forward battle, both backlines are also set to impress. Freddie Michalak, fresh from two drop-goals at Newlands, will be confident of marshalling another upset for the Sharks and Pietersen won’t be shy either. Meanwhile, Sonny Bill leaves union behind after this titanic tussle – expect a scintillating send-off.
Put simply, this clash will be so close and compelling, as two sides attempt to etch their name on this trophy for the first time. For me, the immense number of air-miles that the Sharks have built up will prove telling. Jetlag will jettison their attempt to exorcise the ghost of final defeat in 2007. I wouldn’t put my house on it, though. Chiefs by 4