The Chiefs put their names on the Vodacom Super Rugby trophy for the first time with a compelling and comprehensive performance that netted them a 37-6 win over the Sharks in a one-sided final in Hamilton on Saturday.
There were many die-hard Sharks fans who were duped by the “it is in the stars” nonsense that was being peddled throughout the build-up week by people thinking with the heart and not the head and trying desperately to turn a non-contest into a contest, but the realistic view was that it was always going to be a bridge too far for them after the heroics and the travel of the previous weeks.
And so it proved, with the Sharks simply never being in the game once they had lost the huff and puff of a physical first quarter hour and so emphatic was the Chiefs’ superiority after that it was possible to imagine that had it not been a wet weather game, the hosts might have posted 50.
The Chiefs deserve immense credit for the way they managed to do what the Stormers were unable to do last week by fronting the Sharks’ scrum and thus effectively blunting the visiting team’s biggest weapon and only real hope in a game which came at the end of a marathon journey from Australasia and back and then back again.
When the Sharks weren’t able to get an early foothold and build the early lead they did in Cape Town and Brisbane they simply had no price. It wasn’t their fault, it was just that the travel was too much, and it explained why when the aggressive Chiefs closed down their attacking space and tore into them at the breakdown, the Durbanites just had no answer.
Their inability to get cleaners in and to get the necessary energy and power into the collisions was all down to travel fatigue, and that is why it is hard to blame the Sharks for what effectively is their fourth loss in a Super Rugby final. Expecting them to win after the travelling they have done would just have been grossly unfair.
That though should not detract from the Chiefs’ performance, who proved why along with the Stormers they were the most consistent team for the bulk of the competition. They are clearly well coached, and they managed to achieve what is a rarity for a New Zealand team by disrupting the Sharks’ lineout as one of the first steps on their march to victory.
But it was in the collisions where the difference between the teams was most obvious beyond the first 15 minutes, and the aggressive way they brought their defensive line up ensured that the Sharks weren’t able to bring their dangerous backs into play. Instead it was the Chiefs who had most of the possession, sapping the Sharks’ energy further with the driving of the forwards and then by bringing further balance by alternating chip kicks behind the Sharks backs by spreading the game wide.
It meant the Sharks were frequently at sixes and sevens in the first half, and like the Stormers did in Cape Town seven days earlier, they struggled to field the kicks, further helping the momentum to switch in the Chiefs’ favour before halftime.
There were though good signs from the Sharks in the early minutes, with some gang tackles on Chiefs players offering some hope, and in the initial part of the game the New Zealand commentators felt the Chiefs were lacking their usual ferocity.
There was a big hit from Anton Bresler on Sonny Bill Williams and Bismarck du Plessis, playing his 100th game for his franchise, produced a great little pick-up that led to a kick that put the ball out on the Chiefs’ corner flag. The territory and the early pressure netted a penalty that Frederic Michalak slotted to make it 3-0 after five minutes.
That though was the last Sharks score until Michalak added another penalty when his team were already well down in the second half, and the tide turned quickly in the Chiefs’ favour once they had forced a few turnovers of Sharks ball and played their way into the Sharks’ half.
It was only in the 20th minute, when the Chiefs scored their first try to Tim Nanai Williams, who slid over in the left corner after the attack had been set up by a pin-point kick from Aaron Cruden that had Patrick Lambie fumbling, that the dye was cast. The Chiefs controlled the ball well from the restart and were quickly back into the Sharks’ territory, with the Sharks’ defence starting to look more and more stretched, and a Cruden penalty stretched the lead to seven points.
Cruden added another penalty seven minutes before the break and the Chiefs were suddenly in complete control, if not on the scoreboard certainly on the field of play. In a wet weather game a 10 point difference is much bigger than in a game played in dry conditions, and the pressure was on the Sharks to score first at the start of a second half where they found themselves in the rare position, for the playoff stage, of having to chase the game.
But the Chiefs obviously had the same idea, for they camped in the Sharks territory and just refused to let the Sharks get their hands on the ball.
There was an inevitability to their second try, which was scored by Kane Thompson off an attacking scrum to make it 20-3 with Cruden’s conversion.
By now Cruden was playing like he had the ball on a string, and with Sonny Bill frequently dangerous alongside him, a big win beckoned. The Sharks did stem the tide a bit and a Michalak penalty with half an hour to go made it 20-6, but you always felt the Chiefs would have too much for the tired Sharks in the last 20 minutes.
And it was at that precise moment, the start of the last quarter, that the Chiefs effectively wrapped up the game when Leila Masaga picked up a poorly directed Sharks pass as the visitors tried to run out of defence and outstripped the defenders for the try. Another Cruden penalty and then a Sonny Bill try put the icing on the cake for a dominant Chiefs side who are deserved new champions in their first year under the coaching of Dave Rennie.
Chiefs – Try: Tim Nanai-Williams, Kane Thompson, Lelia Masaga, Sonny Bill Williams. Conversions: Aaron Cruden (4). Penalties: Cruden (3).
Sharks – Penalties: Frederic Michalak (2).