by Fanie Heyns

Sharks are the ultimate road warriors

Vodacom Super Rugby title in Hamilton

Sharks have ahd a greulling travel schedule this superrugby season.
Super Rugby
The Chiefs will have to do more than be aware of the shrewd last-minute changes of the Sharks if they want to win the Vodacom Super Rugby title in Hamilton on Saturday. A last minute, master stroke by the Sharks coach, John Plumtree, contributed to this weekend’s emphatic victory against the Stormers, but they also proved to be the ultimate “road warriors.” 
The Sharks upstaged the log-leading Stormers and won 26-19 in the Super Rugby semi-final at Newlands, despite a gruelling travel schedule on the road to the encounter.
The Sharks, who finished sixth on the log, had to fly to Brisbane from Durban to beat the defending champions, the Reds, thanks to three magnificent tries. From Brisbane again the width of Australia, across the Indian Ocean and then two hours down to Cape Town. But they played full of confidence and energy - clearly a team with good spirit.
Not only that, they gave the impression of being the better prepared team, the one with a plan and confidence in that plan. In contrast, the Stormers fumbled, they slipped, they let balls bounce, their scrumming was rickety and they launched aimless kicks.
The Stormers gave a committed performance after they already had their collective backs against the wall at 9-23 and they hit back through an excellent try by Gio Aplon. But it was not enough to beat the Sharks.
Plumtree’s last minute move of JP Pietersen to outside centre, contributed to the emphatic victory. Pietersen responded to this vote of confidence by scoring the second-half try, beating Eben Etzebeth and Peter Grant in the process.
Plumtree used Riaan Viljoen at fullback, and his big booming boot and accuracy when launching high kicks, were critical factors in the win. It set up the excellent first try by Louis Ludik, who beat Joe Pietersen in the air and brushed off two tackles to score.
The Sharks also dominated  the scrums and collisions. The Stormers were on the back foot for much of the match and impotent and rudderless on the attack. They lacked a general that could direct traffic. If they had a Frederic Michalak, the Stormers might have been preparing for a final instead of licking their wounds.
Michalak was simply outrageously good with two drop-kicks and two penalties, while repeatedly putting his outside backs into space with crisp passing.
But the Stormers also deserve some kudos. Without their best loose forwards like Schalk Burger, Duane Vermeulen and Nick Koster, they performed admirably.
If there is one area where Plumtree simply outshone his counterpart, Allister Coetzee, it was in his superior man management.
Jean de Villiers, Bryan Habana and the rest of the senior players were given far too little time for recuperation and the Sharks, in spite of the travel, looked mentally fresher than the Stormers on Saturday.
The Chiefs edged the Crusaders 20-17 in the semi-final at Hamilton on Friday.
They absorbed much of the second-half pressure after being the play makers and aggressors in the first half.
Liam Messam and Sonny Bill Williams were the inspirational figures behind Chiefs’ win against their more accomplished and illustrious opponents, the seven times champions, the Crusaders.
They must be the pre-final favourites to beat the brave Sharks in the Super Rugby final on Saturday (starting time at 09h35), but the Durban team will travel to Hamilton knowing that they can make history if they win this one.
On three previous occasions, they were beaten in the finals. Their previous final was in 2007, when Bryan Habana scored a try, converted Morné Steyn, to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat in the final minute for the Bulls.  
The Sharks will have the edge in the scrums, where the Chiefs looked decidedly vulnerable against the Crusaders in the semi-finals.
The Sharks looked assured in the midfield against the Stormers and will have to repeat this performance against the Chiefs if they are to win their first Super Rugby title.
Their biggest tests would be their defense against the magnificent attacking Chiefs, as well as their ability to find some form of reserve strength and intensity to match the performance that enabled them to beat the Stormers.
On the strength of the performance by the Sharks the past few weeks, Heyneke Meyer, the Springbok coach, might be forced into selecting Ryan Kankowski and Charl McLeod for the Springboks. He will also have to look at the credentials of Viljoen at fullback and Paul Jordaan at outside centre for the Rugby Championships starting in August.
Lwazi Mvovo is looking a more complete left-wing than a year ago and if given a chance as a substitute for Habana, could score a few Springbok tries with his dazzling attacking skills.
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