Sharks take long way to Super Rugby final
South Africa’s Sharks have crisscrossed the globe to reach the Super Rugby decider and now face one last, long journey to take on the Waikato-based Chiefs in the first-ever final played in Hamilton.
The Sharks were forced to travel 11,000 kilometres from Durban to Brisbane for their quarter-final win over defending champions Queensland and, having passed that formidable obstacle, flew another 11,000km to Cape Town where on Saturday they beat the top-ranked Stormers 26-19.
Already travel-weary and with some impressive frequent flyers points, the Sharks will board another flight this week to rack up a further 11,000km flight to Auckland followed by a 120km bus trip to Hamilton on New Zealand’s North Island where the Chiefs lie in wait.
The Sharks defended with courage to hold out a late comeback by the Stormers to book their airline ticket for the final.
The Stormers seemed out of the match when JP Pietersen’s try gave the Sharks a 14-point lead with 20 minutes remaining.
But Gio Aplon scored for the Stormers seven minutes later and the home team pressed relentlessly for the try that would have levelled the scores.
The visitors held on to complete one of the most astonishing late season comebacks in the history of Super Rugby.
They seemed almost out of the reckoning with only weeks remaining in the regular season but they won three of their past four matches, beating both the Stormers and three-time champions the Bulls, to grab the sixth and last playoffs place.
They then toppled the Australian and South African conference winners to reach the final and must now beat the New Zealand conference champions to clinch their first title.
Coach John Plumtree said the Sharks had resolved during the break in the Super Rugby schedule for June Test matches – three weeks before the end of the regular season – to throw everything into a last-ditch bid to make the finals.
“We gathered confidence and grew a bit at the same time … it snowballed,” Plumtree.
“The team started believing in themselves about 20 to 30 per cent more than when we were playing before the international break.
“We were already playing knockout rugby, basically, several weeks ago so it hardened us, and the leadership grew with that.
“To go to Queensland and win last week and then come here to do it again was always going to be a huge task for any side – I’m really proud of how the boys have stood up.”
The Chiefs reached the final for only the second time in 17 years with a 20-17 win over the seven-time champion Crusaders as both semi-finals went to the underdogs.
While the Chiefs won the New Zealand conference and finished second behind the Stormers in the overall standings they were still underdogs against the powerful Crusaders, who had never previously lost a playoff against a Kiwi opponent.
The victories of the Chiefs and Sharks over more highly-rated opponents led to the least likely of finals in the least likely of venues.
Hamilton, a rural service and university town 120km south of Auckland, is New Zealand’s fifth-largest city and the Chiefs draw their players from the smallest population base among the five New Zealand franchises.© AP 2013
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