Hail to the Chiefs, and watch out Wallabies!
The Chiefs perform the Haka after their win against the Sharks in the Super Rugby grand final (Image: AFP / Marty Melville)
The Sharks were competitive without being threatening for the first 16 minutes of a one-sided Super Rugby final, while the Chiefs scored four tries and conceded only two successful penalties in a 37-6 victory.
The Chiefs are now the third New Zealand team to win a Super Rugby tournament, and only the sixth franchise out of 15.
But let’s be honest about this and fair to the Sharks – they played their real final last week against the Stormers.
This was the ultimate South African derby, with bragging rights through 2013 for the winning side. The Sharks had flown back from Brisbane after handsomely defeating the Reds in the semi-final. The Stormers had an extra week to prepare. But they were blown away by the all-round power and skill of the Sharks’ game.
But then the Sharks had to fly to Hamilton, via a couple days rest in Sydney, to play a rampant Chiefs side that had defeated the Crusaders, the iconic New Zealand Super Rugby team.
There is no doubt that all this flying took its toll on the Sharks. They lacked the zip and the energy to capitalise on their early field position and possession.
I also think they were not mentally up for the final. To my mind there was a sense about their play that they had won the match that really mattered to them the weekend before.
Their play was predictable, a sign of mental and physical tiredness. The signs were everywhere in fact. With the score line 10-3 in favour of the Chiefs after about 25 minutes, the Sharks won two penalties within a minute of each other.
The second was on their 10m mark and a good kick could have had play just outside the Chiefs’ 22. But just after Steve Walsh blew his whistle and signalled against the Chiefs, Jannie du Plessis, who had been smacked on the nose by the shoulder of a Chiefs forward, swung around and sort of bopped him.
Walsh changed the penalty and gave it to the Chiefs. Aaron Cruden kicked the goal and the scoreline was a more inaccessible 13-3.
By way of comparison, the Chiefs brought in new plays, especially one tricky lineout move near the Shark try line. They looked to score tries, even when they had the game wrapped up and could have settled for penalty shots. They grew stronger and faster as the game progressed and they handled the wet conditions better with their clever kicking game.
Before South Africans jump on me for somehow being anti-South African when I make this point about the lethargy of the Sharks play, I would argue that this is more an explanation of the surprisingly flat performance of the Sharks, not a criticism.
The same sort of argument, I would suggest, applied to the All Blacks in their 2011 Rugby World Cup final against France. It was clear from being at Eden Park for the semi-final against the Wallabies that the All Blacks and their supporters considered this to be the real final of the tournament.
The same sort of thing happened, in my opinion, against the Sharks. The All Blacks had enough energy in their tank, the home ground advantage working for them, too, to scrap out a less than convincing victory in the 2011 Rugby World Cup final but the Sharks were playing away from home and were travel-weary.
You had the feeling that they were going through the motions of a sort of inevitable defeat whereas the Chiefs were hungry for points to annihilate the Sharks right from the beginning of the game.
There has been the suggestion that the final should be held two weeks after the semi-finals to help the travelling side get over its tiredness and jet-lag. This would be a bad move, in my opinion. The point about the finals system that is in place is that it rewards teams for winning matches during the pool rounds. I would make one adjustment, though. The final should be held at the home ground of the team that has gained the most pool round points.
The system makes it difficult, admittedly, for a team that is in the sixth place in the finals. But this is as it should be. The teams higher up in the table should get the benefit of their consistent winning record during the season.
The Chiefs have the chance, as the Reds did last year, of establishing a dynasty. They will lose Sonny Bill Williams, who in my view was Man of the Match, setting up a try with a smashing run, a second try with a smashing tackle, and then scoring a try himself and doing the Green Bay Packers trick of leaping into the crowd behind the goal posts. But the majority of the squad is coming back and, most importantly, the same coaching staff will be on board in 2013.
I have no hesitation in saying that if SBW stayed he would cement a place in the All Black side and also a reputation as one of the greatest inside centres in the history of the game. He may well come back to rugby union, but whether he can regain the magic he has now acquired is a moot point.
It’s hard to believe that last season the Chiefs had 10 losses and only six wins. They also lost the first game of this season at home against the Highlanders. Now they have developed into a complete side. Their set pieces, especially the scrums (notice there wasn’t one reset during the game), are excellent. They closed down the Sharks lineout. Their defence was ruthless, athletic and hard-shouldered.
Cruden is becoming the Alfie Langer of Chiefs and, in time, All Blacks rugby – small, tough, tricky, lethal in attack and adept at setting up runners. As the Reds learnt to their cost this season, teams are only as competitive as the ability of their number 10 to influence the outcome of matches by making the right decisions at the right times. Cruden is quickly getting to this status.
And most importantly, for this is the best indication of great coaching, every player in the Chiefs side developed tremendously during the season. Two cases will make the point. Craig Clarke up to this season has been regarded as a journeyman second rower. Now he is the next second rower to be selected if one of the current All Blacks get injured.
Robbie Robinson was a young, talented but error-prone back in the past. Coming back from injury sustained earlier in the season, he has been a revelation on the wing and on Saturday night at fullback. His running of the ball back to the Sharks was a decisive factor in the outcome of the match.
The point here is that Clarke was an older player who has improved greatly and Robinson is a younger player who has improved.
You have to hand it to the coaching staff of Dave Rennie (an All Blacks coach of the future), Wayne Smith, Tom Coventry (the forwards coach) and Andrew Strawbridge (the skills coach) for turning around the Chiefs franchise.
They have taken a losing franchise and, within one season, turned it into a potential dynasty. And they did this by developing a team style that is aggressive on attack and defence.
This turnaround should somehow be an inspiration for the Waratahs franchise. But why is it that I don’t think the authorities at the Waratahs will make an intense study of what happened at the Chiefs this season and implement changes to achieve the same thing?
I’ll give the Waratahs board one clue. Look at the coaching staff of the Chiefs. It all starts at the top.
The other point I take out of the finals is the quality of play of the Chiefs and the Crusaders. These two New Zealand teams are playing a style that is hard-shouldered and ruthless in the contact areas of play and skilful, relentless, smart and fast in moving the ball around the field with the intent to score tries. Complete and championship-winning rugby, in other words.
If these attributes are transferred to the All Blacks, and the squad announced on Sunday reflects this sort of intention, then the Wallabies need to watch out at Sydney in the first Bledisloe Cup Test on August 18. The Rugby World Cup 2011 victory seems to have inspired the New Zealand rugby community to raise the level of performances on the field rather than rest on their laurels.
That is the bigger picture, it seems to me, that was drawn at Hamilton on Saturday night.
Spiro Zavos, a founding writer on The Roar, was long time editorial writer on the Sydney Morning Herald, where he started a rugby column that has run for nearly 30 years. Spiro has written 12 books: fiction, biography, politics and histories of Australian, New Zealand, British and South African rugby. He is regarded as one of the foremost writers on rugby throughout the world.
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