There was a lot of effort from the Sharks but little spring in their step as their Super Rugby challenge fizzled out in the wet of Hamilton. Call it a bridge too far, call it a team doomed by the fatigue factor, but however you look at it, one team was full of the joys of imminent spring and the other was wearing concrete boots.
It is one of the strongest criticisms of Super Rugby that it can produce one-sided matches in the finals stage because of the travel factor. It is a tough one, because you can't change the geography of where New Zealand, Australia and South Africa feature on the world map. The 15 teams compete for three months for the luxury of not having to travel for 18 hours across multiple time zones to play knock-out matches.
It is a pity that the Southern Hemisphere alliance has such a vast distance between Australasia and South Africa, because the 25,000 at the game and the worldwide audience would have preferred to see a showdown between the Sharks at their best and a Chiefs team that were definitely at their best.
The Chiefs certainly looked the fresher for not having had to travel overseas for a semifinal and for the bye that that was their reward in the quarter-finals. The Sharks looked increasingly leaden-footed after a brave and relatively bright opening quarter, during which they led 3-0 before 13 points by the Chiefs in the second quarter, without reply, effectively sunk them.
They disappeared beneath the surface without trace after halftime when the Chiefs scored first through loose forward Kane Thompson after the Sharks had been hanging on for five minutes. It was 20-3 and the Chiefs were over the hills and far away. They were sniffing the champagne 10 minutes later when Lelia Masaga preyed on a handling mix-up and sped home for the clincher. At 27-6 it was getting ugly.
There was no sign of the effervescent Sharks team that on the way to the final had to first blow away the Bulls and Cheetahs in round-robin games before playing blinders away from home against the Reds and the Stormers, and then heading back across the Indian Ocean for a final that was one cross too many to bear.
It was just too much and many South African pundits accurately felt that after the Sharks came back from Brisbane to play the Stormers, they were in reality playing their final, because going all the way back again was physically and mentally too taxing. Machines could have done it, but not humans.
As the game hit that second quarter, the Sharks' lineout started to creak and groan and then came the handling errors in dealing with the Chiefs' kicking game. When the confidence started going, the Sharks made their own handling errors as they tried to make things happen while playing hopelessly behind the advantage line.
The week before, in the semifinal at the same venue against the Crusaders, the illustrious visitors were equally shut out by the imposing home defence. So while Durban will be cursing the travel factor, and indeed it played its role, the Chiefs were never going to be denied on a famous night for the Waikato.By Mike Greenaway Email Mike