Five reasons why the Chiefs should beat the Sharks to claim their first Super Rugby title: By Patrick McKendry of APNZ
The Sharks have done a ridiculous amount of travelling to get to the final, having played the Reds in Brisbane and Stormers in Cape Town on consecutive weeks before landing in Hamilton following a few days in Sydney. The Crusaders showed last season in falling to the Reds at Suncorp Stadium in the final after playing the Stormers at Newlands that the travel factor is huge at the end of a long season. The Chiefs, on the other hand, have been in their own beds for weeks. They accounted for the Crusaders in Hamilton in last weekend's semifinal and before that they had the week off. Most of the Sharks' on-field training recently has been recovery work. Dave Rennie's men are well rested and will be playing in front of a partisan crowd.
Lock and captain Craig Clarke's recovery from a knee injury is a massive boost for the Chiefs. Even if he doesn't last the whole match, his initial steadiness in the set piece, especially the lineout against the Sharks' tall timber, will be crucial. The Chiefs don't have any other injury concerns, whereas the Sharks have had centre Tim Whitehead ruled out with a broken hand. Springbok Pat Lambie comes back into the team after a six-week injury break and starts at fullback, with the promising Paul Jordaan also back from injury and starting at second-five. JP Pietersen, normally a wing, starts at centre. It's anything but a settled backline, though there is plenty of talent there.
A strength this season for the Chiefs, and assistant coach Wayne Smith has had a big part to play here. The Sharks, who have the best attacking record in the competition, scored only one try against the Chiefs in the 18-12 defeat in the round-robin match between the two teams in Durban this season. The Sharks could panic if they fail to find their way through the Chiefs' wall, especially if first-five Freddie Michalak has an off night in his final appearance for the team. And once they get momentum, the Chiefs are extremely hard to stop. Tawera Kerr-Barlow, Aaron Cruden and Sonny Bill Williams will be eyeing the above changes with more than a little relish.
The little first-five has had a breakthrough season and outplayed All Blacks incumbent Dan Carter last weekend. He appears sharper and quicker than Carter and has been more accurate with his goalkicking this season. Cruden is sitting on 234 points which is the most scored by a New Zealand player in a Super season, and the second best by any player in a Super season behind Morne Steyn's record of 263 in 2010. He has built an impressive understanding with both Kerr-Barlow and Williams on either side of him.
He tends to reserve his best for special occasions and they don't come much bigger than a Super Rugby final at home in what will be last appearance for the Chiefs. Williams has been consistently excellent this season which he has achieved through consistent game time. Last season he was plagued by injuries at the Crusaders and was often exhausted due to his boxing training. Now that he has put the boxing on hold and is concentrating on his day job he has gone to a new level.