Patrick McKendry

Patrick McKendry is a rugby writer for the Herald.

Rugby: Clarke's courage leads way for Chiefs

Chiefs co-captain Craig Clarke holds the Super Rugby Cup after the Chiefs defeated the Sharks during the Super Rugby Final. Photo / Getty Images.
Chiefs co-captain Craig Clarke holds the Super Rugby Cup after the Chiefs defeated the Sharks during the Super Rugby Final. Photo / Getty Images.

The records will show that Craig Clarke played 80 minutes for the Chiefs as they claimed their first Super Rugby title with a 37-6 win over the Sharks at Waikato Stadium, but not what his influence meant or the fact he shouldn't have been playing at all.

Clarke's grade two medial ligament knee strain, which he suffered in the semifinal victory over the Crusaders a week earlier, usually has a recovery time of six to eight weeks. As coach Dave Rennie said afterwards, the hard-working and humble lock shouldn't even have stripped to play yet there he was leading from the front as usual.

His inspirational performance was a testament to the spirit within the squad and the character that he possesses. A few weeks earlier Clarke's absence due to illness was a big factor in the round-robin defeat to the Crusaders, one of only four losses for the Chiefs this season.

There was no way he was letting that happen again.

"You want players who can play with small hurts and get through games and Craig showed that today really ... He shouldn't have even stripped. We got 80 minutes out of him and that's the sort of player that I want on the track," Rennie said.

"To strap it up, get him out there ... he had to grin and bear it a bit and tough it out. To get 80 minutes out of him tonight speaks volumes for the character of the man."

The man himself, who answers to "Weka", said simply: "It's amazing what a bit of adrenaline does, eh."

Clarke said the knee stiffened in the final 10 minutes but other than that it wasn't a concern.

The victory, coming as it did against a Sharks team weary from criss-crossing the Indian Ocean in contesting playoff matches against the Reds in Brisbane and Stormers in Cape Town, was no real surprise, which says a lot about how far the Chiefs have come this season.

They lost their opening game to the Highlanders in Hamilton and lost four players to long-term injuries. It was a bleak start but, building on belief instilled by Rennie, in his debut season, and fellow coaches Wayne Smith and Tom Coventry, the Chiefs moulded themselves into a consistently excellent team and one that was very hard to beat.

The Sharks, known for their attacking flair, and possessing Springboks throughout such as JP Pietersen, Pat Lambie, Ryan Kankowski, Keegan Daniel and the front-row Du Plessis brothers, failed to cross the Chiefs' line. They began well in the drizzle and it took the Chiefs 20 minutes to reach their rhythm, but once Tim Nanai-Williams scored halfway through the first half, the Sharks were effectively sunk.

"It's hugely satisfying," said Rennie. "I'm just really rapt for the boys, they've worked really hard and certainly earned the respect of not only the coaching group but also this community. I suppose from a selection point of view I think we got it right. We targeted a lot of hard-working, honest buggers who would put it out on the park for us week after week.

"We knew that they would front," he said of the Sharks. "It was a bit of an arm wrestle early on. We threw a couple of loose passes which if they had landed in their hands might have put us under a bit of pressure. They were forced to make a lot of tackles in the first half and that took its toll in the second half."

No8 Kane Thompson ploughed over from a 5m scrum, replacement wing Lelia Masaga stepped his way over and Sonny Bill Williams delivered in timely fashion, as is his wont, when scoring with three minutes remaining and continuing his run straight into the arms of several spectators.

The only off note was the lack of media access to the Chiefs after the match. Any hopes the assembled reporters had of interviewing Brodie Retallick or Aaron Cruden or Tawera Kerr-Barlow - to name but a few - on their thoughts on the final, or Williams about his last hurrah for the side, were quickly dashed when only hooker Mahonri Schwalger and prop Ben Tameifuna were made available.

Chiefs 37 (Tim Nanai-Williams, Kane Thompson, Lelia Masaga, Sonny Bill Williams tries; Aaron Cruden 4 cons, 3 pens). Sharks 6 (Freddie Michalak 2 pens).

HT: 13-3

- APNZ

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