Preview: <hash>Chiefs</hash> v <hash>Sharks</hash>

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Thursday, August 2, 2012    Getty Images

The Sharks may have done the miles, but they also did the Stormers twice during the season and bring a particularly powerful team to Hamilton to face New Zealand's best.

VENUE & TIME: Waikato Stadium, Hamilton, Saturday August 4 @ 1935 NZST

HEAD TO HEAD: Played 17; Chiefs 8, Natal / Sharks 9.

LAST TIME: April 21, 2012 (Durban, round nine) – Sharks 12-18 Chiefs.

WALKING WOUNDED: The Chiefs are sweating on Craig Clarke's fitness, as the skipper strained a knee ligament last week and has been on day-to-day watch ever since. He got through the semi, but has been battling since then. The Sharks have been buoyed by the news that Patrick Lambie is sufficiently over his ankle injury to be considered for selection. Centre Paul Jordaan, who also missed the semi, is back in the team as well. The Sharks have travelled 24 players – the 22 from last week and the two fit-agains - but are likely to run with the 5-2 split on the bench they used at Cape Town. Neither team had been named by Thursday lunchtime.

Round 16: beat Highlanders 27-21 (a)
Round 17: lost to Crusaders 21-28 (h)
Round 18: lost to Hurricanes 25-28 (a)
Round 19: bye
Round 20: beat Crusaders 20-17 (h, sf)

Round 16: bye
Round 17: beat Bulls 32-10 (h)
Round 18: beat Cheetahs 34-15 (h)
Round 19: beat Reds 30-17 (a, qf)
Round 20: beat Stormers 26-19 (a, sf)

The Chiefs began the semi-final with the sort of ferocity one seldom sees, and it was clear they managed to put the Crusaders off their stroke with some punishing defence and clever attacking play. There were a few silly penalties, but their rugby was direct and extremely physical. Both tries came from strong team attacks and were finished off in clinical style; not many players are as hard to stop near the line as Sona Taumalolo and not many teams can be so effective up the middle from 50m out. The second spell was tighter but one penalty goal from Aaron Cruden kept the Crusaders at bay, and then some crunching defence and firm discipline helped repel the Crusaders final attack, eventually pushing the visitors back from the home 22 to their own side of halfway. Although there were only three points in it at the end, the better side on the day won the match.

The Sharks wanted a fast start at Cape Town, but didn't really get it in some extremely physical opening exchanges. But shortly after the half-hour mark Louis Ludik climbed above the defence to regather a bomb and broke several tackles on his way to the opening try, and the Sharks kicked their advantage out to 23-9 shortly after the break when JP Pietersen finished a strong attack in classic style. Although the Stormers put some pressure on, they only created one try-scoring play which Gio Aplon finished but a neat dropped goal – his second of the match – from Frederic Michalak put the margin back out to seven. More aggressive defence from the Sharks led to a turnover and the ball was duly booted into touch to complete a notable (and rare) away semi-final win. As was the case at Hamilton, the better team took the honours.

WHO'S HOT: Nobody in either team played other than well last week, but there were still a few standouts and several of them will go head-to-head. Perhaps the most interesting battle will be in the loose forwards, where Liam Messam and Marcell Coetzee are sure to shine. Both are extremely physical, especially with ball in hand, but Messam has the silkier touches and Coetzee prefers the direct route at full speed. That said, they both trouble defences on many occasions during any match. The tight fives are a reasonable match but the Sharks won’t be unhappy if Clarke cannot play, and you can expect plenty of aggression in the close exchanges. The Sharks also have Bismarck du Plessis, who has been one of the very best in Super rugby this year and his all-round game is particularly difficult to counter. If the Sharks have a slight edge up front, the Chiefs certainly hold the trumps in the inside backs and Sonny Bill Williams, with his power and aggressive running, may be the joker. If he gets it right, he could blow the match wide open in two or three plays. The home side will certainly look to break through the close channels – they’ve been very good there all year – and the game could be won and lost up the middle. Aaron Cruden and Frederic Michalak are a good match for each other and each brings a variety of skills, with Cruden the more aggressive in outlook and Michalak the controlling influence. Michalak showed he’s not scared to try a dropped goal, a skill that is sure to come out again on Saturday, while both are high up the goal-kicking standings and Cruden will finish as the season’s leading scorer. JP Pietersen has been outstanding this year and is the Sharks biggest backline threat while Robbie Robinson may be flying under the radar, as his dangerous broken-field running often gets the Chiefs on the front foot. But everywhere you look you will find a clash between two good players, and the overall picture shows two teams who can attack well, defend solidly enough and who do enough right in most of their matches to get those W’s in the book. The teams are different in style but similar in outlook, and if either goes into its shell it would fly in the face of all we have seen throughout the year.

WE THINK: Both teams like to get on top early – each has an excellent record of leading at halftime and then going on to take the match – but you have to think it’s vital for the Sharks this week because their globe-trotting must be a factor, no matter how much the players deny it. Both are dangerous attacking sides and physical on defence, even if the Sharks do miss a few more tackles – but that may be a problem as the game wears on. It would be a 50-50 call in more normal circumstances but home advantage is huge this time, and for that reason we're going to pick the Chiefs to become the sixth team to get their names on the trophy. The margin is irrelevant.

Chiefs: 1.Sona Taumalolo, 2.Mahonri Schwalger, 3.Ben Tameifuna, 4.Craig Clarke (captain), 5.Brodie Retallick, 6.Liam Messam, 7.Tanerau Latimer, 8.Kane Thompson, 9.Tawera Kerr-Barlow, 10.Aaron Cruden, 11.Asaeli Tikoirotuma, 12.Sonny Bill Williams, 13.Andrew Horrell, 14.Tim Nanai-Williams, 15.Robbie Robinson.

Reserves: 16.Hika Elliot, 17.Ben Afeaki, 18.Michael Fitzgerald, 19. Sam Cane, 20.Brendon Leonard, 21.Jackson Willison, 22.Lelia Masaga.

Sharks: 1.Tendai Mtawarira, 2.Bismarck du Plessis, 3.Jannie du Plessis, 4.Willem Alberts, 5.Anton Bresler, 6.Keegan Daniel (captain), 7. Marcell Coetzee, 8.Ryan Kankowski, 9.Charl McLeod,10.Frederic Michalak, 11.Lwazi Mvovo, 12.Paul Jordaan, 13.JP Pietersen, 14.Louis Ludik, 15.Patrick Lambie.

Reserves: 16.Craig Burden, 17.Wiehahn Herbst, 18.Steven Sykes, 19.Jacques Botes, 20.Jean Deysel, 21.Meyer Bosman, 22.Riaan Viljoen.

REFEREE: Steve Walsh (Australia)