A new Super Rugby champion will emerge when South Africa’s road-weary Sharks lock horns with their ambitious hosts Waikato Chiefs in a sellout final at Hamilton on Saturday.
The Sharks will hope to make it fourth time lucky after losing their previous visits to the finals, but they will first need to deal with the final leg of a globe-trotting schedule after sneaking into the playoffs as the sixth-ranked qualifier.
The Durban-based franchise returned to South Africa last weekend for their semi-final in Cape Town against table-toppers Stormers after criss-crossing the Indian Ocean to beat 2011 champions the Queensland Reds in Brisbane.
For the final, the Sharks have decided to break up their journey to Hamilton and have parked themselves in Sydney for three days in a bid to overcome jet-lag.
“The win over the Stormers was a brave performance,” assistant coach Grant Bashford said on the team’s website of the 26-19 victory.
“We didn’t talk or worry about the travel in the week and ended up really just gutsing out the win,” he added.
“I’m not sure this sort of travel has ever been done before and if we were to win on Saturday, I think all the sports science details about travel fatigue would go out the window.
“We’re in unchartered territory now, but jet-lag is going to be the least of our worries. We’ll just focus on ensuring we prepare for the final as best we can.”
The Chiefs, who beat seven-times champion Canterbury Crusaders 20-17 in their semi-final, will be looking to go one better in their second attempt at the title after losing out to the Bulls in 2009.
After losing their last two matches in the regular season, the New Zealand conference winners were back to their best against the Crusaders with their searing pace and strong defence proving too much for the visitors.
“It has been a long campaign. Things have gone pretty quickly and obviously we are still really excited to still be in the race,” Chiefs coach Dave Rennie was quoted as saying on the SANZAR website.
“Making the final certainly was our goal, and I don’t think everyone agreed back in November, but belief grows with performance, and knocking over the Crusaders and Blues early in the piece probably helped that.”
For the final, the Sharks will be without first-choice centre Tim Whitehead, who broke his hand during the victory over the Stormers last Saturday.
The Chiefs were also fretting on an injury to co-captain and lock Craig Clarke, who took a blow to his knee early in the match against the Crusaders but managed to play on and has been declared fit in an unchanged line-up for the final.
“It’s nice to be able to keep faith with the players, although we did consider other options,” Rennie said.
“A couple of positions were up for debate but in the end we were happy with what the team achieved last week.”
Sharks and Springbok back JP Pietersen has no qualms in accepting that the Chiefs were the team to beat in the 2012 Super Rugby season.
“The Chiefs have been the best team in the competition this season — they showed that the whole tournament — and we’re in for a big game,” he summed up on the team’s website.
“They have a great attacking game, they have some fantastic attacking backline players as well as in the loose forwards.
“Then you have Sona Taumalolo, who has scored nine tries off pick and goes, so they are dangerous all-round. They also have a good defensive system and will definitely challenge us.
“It’s going to be hard, it’s going to be physical, and if we don’t front up and take them on at their own game, we will have a long day.”