Chiefs are worthy champions
There was a mad dash to get into the SKY NZ studios at the London Olympic Broadcast Centre on Saturday morning in time to watch the Super Rugby final, and for the Chiefs fans in our crew especially, it was well worth it.
Just as it was for the Crusaders last year, and the Chiefs who were hammered by the Bulls in Pretoria, the travel factor was a big factor, and put the Sharks at a disadvantage.
Sharks fans can be proud of their herculean effort just to get to the final. To travel to Brisbane and beat the Reds, then go back to Cape Town and knock off the No 1 qualifiers the Stormers would have been beyond most, and who knows what they might have been capable of had they had a week off between semi and final, as discussed last week.
But having been at or around the top of the table for most of the series I believe the Chiefs are worthy winners.
Even though, like many of you, I have misgivings about a system that can offer home advantage to a team with an inferior record to those below them, it does at least give tangible reward to the two teams that have played the best, or the most successful rugby through the season.
I thought the final would come down to who controlled the ball, but with the Sharks having a slight edge in territory and a decent advantage in possession, it really was about who made better use of the ball.
Whereas the Chiefs' attack always looked sharp and dangerous, the Sharks' efforts to build pressure were thwarted by a mix of their own errors, and the stout defence of the home team. They also fell off too many crucial tackles, which has been one weakness in their game.
But really, I don’t want to dwell on the match itself too much. I’m sure you’ve all chewed it over by now, so better to just look back at the season of these two teams and what they did to make the final – one that came at the end of a really good Super Rugby competition.
The Sharks overcame early injury problems to mount an excellent charge at the end of the round robin, and take compelling form into the playoffs.
Given the only temporary availability of Frans Steyn and the injuries to Pat Lambie, you have to credit Charl McLeod and Freddie Michalak for the way they got the Sharks around the field. Freddie can be a bit of a liability on defence but he has done a great job for the team. JP Pietersen performed usefully at centre when needed, but on the wing he was the best in the competition, and looms as a major threat in the forthcoming test series if they give him the ball.
Bismark du Plessis was colossal throughout, and the Chiefs focused heavily on stopping him getting a head of steam up in the final, but to me the stars of the Sharks pack have been their loosies. Both Keegan Daniel and Marcell Coetzee have been a revelation. Daniel doesn’t fit the mold of the modern loosie with his lean physique, but he has been pure dynamite, while the relentless workrate and eye-catching form of Coetzee has vindicated the controversial decision to promote him to the Springboks ahead of Heinrich Brussow (although I note Brussow is now officially not included for injury reasons).
If anything, I’d just like to see the Sharks try and do a bit more with the ball. The carrying of their forwards is outstanding, but I think this competition has in the end rewarded the best attacking teams, and we can only wonder what the Sharks and Stormers could achieve if they opened up more chances for their talented backs.
As for the Chiefs, well they are no longer the underachievers of New Zealand rugby.
Between seasons they made a long-overdue change to their coaching staff, but in the end the wait was worth it, because the timing was just right for Dave Rennie, Wayne Smith and Tom Coventry to come together in a group that I would be more than happy to see coaching the All Blacks. It is a perfect combination of common sense, tactical nous and good player management – a mix of Rennie's no-nonsense approach with Smith's famed sense of invention.
They had the best set of backs in the competition, but the key was getting a no-names forward pack to provide them with some ball to work with. The unsung Coventry is the real hero in that department.
They have unleashed some tremendous new forward talent with Brodie Retallick and Ben Tameifuna two young giants with a big future, although Tameifuna needs to work on his tackling – he was very lucky not to be yellow-carded in the final.
To me this season has been a great success in the way it has uncovered a clutch of new stars in all three countries, although more so in New Zealand and South Africa, which bodes well for the future.
Roll on the Rugby Championship. In the meantime I will head back to an absorbing wee race between the Sanzar nations at the Olympics!
UPDATE: Just got back from an evening at the Track and Field (silver medal for New Zealand's Val Adams in women's shot) to read on supersport.com that JP Pietersen is out for the best part of the Rugby Championship with a broken hand. Bad news for a guy in the form of his life. Should also add that Ryan Kankowski is dead unlucky not to make the Bok squad, as he is also back to his best in recent weeks.