Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town – They say you should always be terribly wary of a “one hand on the trophy” mindset when all that genuinely matters is placing a firm pair on it.
But with the Crusaders -- and all their proud Super Rugby finals pedigree -- now a little unexpectedly taken out of the equation for next weekend’s showpiece, many South Africans will be feeling more and more bullish about the prospect of the title returning to our shores after a year’s absence in 2011.
Friday’s stirring and richly deserved 20-17 triumph by the Chiefs in their semi-final derby with the once-mighty Cantabrians at Waikato Stadium means the tournament will have a first-time winner next weekend, regardless of whether it is the Chiefs or the winners of Saturday’s cracking all-SA semi featuring the Stormers and Sharks at Newlands.
All three boast previous experience of finals, but have never managed to go all the way to glory.
Certainly the motivation for both of the remaining South African combatants will have cranked up a crucial notch with the news that Richie McCaw and company have been elbowed out of the picture.
Deep down, everyone in these parts knows that the Crusaders almost without fail prove a bridge too far for South African opposition in Christchurch ... which would have been very little comfort for the already jet-lagged Sharks should they have found themselves paired against them in the final.
And even if they had cracked an amazing 11th berth in a showpiece (they’ve won it an unrivalled seven times) and had to travel to Newlands for the last hurdle, the ‘Saders would have done so knowing that they easily saw off the Stormers 29-10 in a semi-final there last season.
With the greatest of respect to the Chiefs team who “pitched up” so inspiringly and robustly on Friday, they have a knockout-phase heritage altogether more flimsy than that of the Crusaders, which will add fuel to the drive by either of the Stormers or Sharks to maiden silverware success.
Their only prior taste of a final was on South African turf, and they took a record 61-17 pummelling from the Bulls of Victor Matfield’s heyday in 2009 at Loftus – also coming immediately off a home semi, which had seen them down the Hurricanes 14-10.
So if they find themselves travelling to Cape Town, expect the Stormers to rapidly be installed as pretty solid favourites.
“That would be nice,” victorious Chiefs skipper Craig Clarke duly replied, with commendable honesty, when asked after Friday’s win whether his troops would be urging on the Sharks on Saturday, given the guarantee it would provide of a Hamilton final instead.
Still, another truth is that a potentially victorious Sharks team at Newlands would far more greatly fancy their chances of knocking over the Chiefs in New Zealand than they would the Crusaders.
The way the “Mooloo Men” put their bodies on the line on Friday will have some critics, perhaps even in New Zealand, just suspecting that this virtually was their final, given the massive effort they put into it both physically and mentally.
Can they sustain such commitment for one last time, whether in Hamilton or Cape Town, or must they only slip to at least some degree off a mini-peak?
Naturally both coaches for Saturday’s mouth-watering tussle, Allister Coetzee of the Stormers and the Sharks’ John Plumtree, are sure to urge their charges not to put any carts before horses, as this semi also looms as a humdinger -- with pundits notably divided on it.
For interest’s sake, these are the results of the last four Super Rugby meetings each between the already-known 2012 finalists, and the Stormers and Sharks:
Stormers v Chiefs (home team listed first):
2012: Not drawn against each other in ordinary season
2011: Chiefs 30 Stormers 23
2010: Chiefs 15 Stormers 49
2009: Stormers 14 Chiefs 28
2008: Chiefs 26 Stormers 35Sharks v Chiefs:
2012: Sharks 12 Chiefs 18
2011: Chiefs 15 Sharks 9
2010: Sharks 18 Chiefs 19
2009: Chiefs 15 Sharks 22
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