The Sharks will be out to accomplish the near impossible against the Chiefs as both teams attempt to win their first Super Rugby title.
The Sharks will be out to accomplish the near impossible when they take on the Chiefs as both teams attempt to win their first Super Rugby title in Hamilton on Saturday.
After almost six months of separating the hopefuls from the disappointed, the longest season in Super Rugby history comes to an exciting conclusion this weekend, with the Final guaranteed to provide a new champion.
Whilst it's fair to say that two of the best teams in this year's tournament will battle it out for the crown, the odds are stacked heavily against the globe-trotting Sharks to pull off what will be a monumental victory.
After mixed fortunes through the first half of the season, the Sharks won six of their final seven regular season games to make the top six. But to reach the final in Hamilton, the men from Durban have had to clock up a travelling record as they criss-crossed the Indian Ocean three times after beating the Reds in Brisbane and then the Stormers in Cape Town.
Now the big question on everyone's lips is whether John Plumtree's troops can defy the odds for a third straight week and return home with the title after covering 55,000 kilometres in the air.
On the other end of the scale, the Chiefs haven't had to leave Hamilton for three weeks (the last time they played outside of New Zealand was on May 13) and once again enjoy the luxury of playing at Waikato Stadium where they will host their first home Super Rugby Final.
Despite losing their last two regular season fixtures, the Chiefs dug deep in their semi-final and ended up eliminating the most successful team in the history of Super Rugby. While the Chiefs won the New Zealand conference and finished second behind the Stormers in the overall standings they were still underdogs against the powerful Crusaders, who were playing their 14th semi-final in 17 years and who had never previously lost a play-off against a New Zealand opponent.
While the Chiefs entered last Friday's semi-final as underdogs, this week they are clear favourites when they run on for only their second final (their last final three years ago ended in an embarrassing 61-17 massacre at the hands of the Bulls).
The Sharks, meanwhile, are no strangers to finals rugby but are no better off than the Chiefs in that they've never managed to scale the last hurdle having gone down to the Blues in 1996, the Brumbies in 2001 and the Bulls in 2007.
When the Chiefs and Sharks met earlier this year in Durban, the Kiwi outfit got the better of their South African counterparts. But as the season reaches an exciting climax, there isn't a lot between the two teams.
Just eight points separate the Chiefs from the Sharks for points scored (444 to 436), the Sharks have conceded fewer points (348 to 358), both have scored 47 tries while the Chiefs have conceded 30 and the Sharks 31!
But even though the two finalists are pretty evenly matched, the Sharks will have to do what has only been achieved once in the history of Super Rugby – win a final in another country (in 2000, the Crusaders travelled to Canberra, where they beat the Brumbies 20-19).
In fact only two teams have won finals away from home – the Crusaders also did it in 1998 (against the Blues in Auckland) and in 1999 (against the Highlanders in Dunedin), while the Bulls beat the Sharks in Durban in 2007.
The Sharks' victories in Brisbane and Cape Town in the past fortnight have certainly highlighted the belief within the side. And while belief alone won't be enough to win a Super Rugby Final, it will certainly give the men from Durban a fighting chance against a Chiefs side feeling the pressure to win.
Ones to watch:
For Chiefs: It's hard to look beyond Aaron Cruden, who outplayed legendary Crusaders pivot Dan Carter in last week's semi-final thanks to his far superior game management, pinpoint goalkicking and line-breaking bursts. And we have a funny feeling there's plenty more to come from the talented 23-year-old…
For Sharks: JP Pietersen has been a key cog in the Sharks' team during recent weeks, and without a doubt their form attacking weapon. The Springbok winger was twice named Man of the Match in the last three games, and will once again be relied upon to produce the goods in the number 13 jersey.
Head to head: Check out our detailed analysis from 15-1 here!
2012: Chiefs won 18-12 in Durban
2011: Chiefs won 15-9 in Hamilton
2010: Chiefs won 19-18 in Durban
2009: Sharks won 22-15 in Hamilton
2008: Sharks won 47-25 in Durban
2007: Chiefs won 35-27 in Hamilton
Prediction: Whilst the Sharks have already proven their doubters wrong two weekends in succession, we think it's going to be one heck of a tough ask for the Sharks to go back and forth, and back and forth again in order to achieve three consecutive away victories. Chiefs by six!
Chiefs: 15 Robbie Robinson, 14 Tim Nanai-Williams, 13 Andrew Horrell, 12 Sonny Bill Williams, 11 Asaeli Tikoirotuma, 10 Aaron Cruden, 9 Tawera Kerr-Barlow, 8 Kane Thompson, 7 Tanerau Latimer, 6 Liam Messam, 5 Brodie Retallick, 4 Craig Clarke (c), 3 Ben Tameifuna, 2 Mahonri Schwalger, 1 Sona Taumalolo.
Replacements: 16 Hika Elliot, 17 Ben Afeaki, 18 Michael Fitzgerald, 19 Sam Cane, 20 Brendon Leonard, 21 Jackson Willison, 22 Lelia Masaga.
Sharks: 15 Pat Lambie, 14 Louis Ludik, 13 JP Pietersen, 12 Paul Jordaan, 11 Lwazi Mvovo, 10 Frederic Michalak, 9 Charl McLeod, 8 Ryan Kankowski, 7 Marcell Coetzee, 6 Keegan Daniel (c), 5 Anton Bresler, 4 Willem Alberts, 3 Jannie du Plessis, 2 Bismarck du Plessis, 1 Tendai Mtawarira.
Replacements: 16 Craig Burden, 17 Wiehahn Herbst, 18 Steven Sykes, 19 Jean Deysel, 20 Jacques Botes, 21 Meyer Bosman, 22 Riaan Viljoen.
Date: Saturday, 4 August
Venue: Waikato Stadium, Hamilton
Kick-off: 19:35 (09:35 SA time; 07:35 GMT)
Referee: Steve Walsh
Assistant referees: Craig Joubert, Keith BrownTMO: Garratt Williamson