Sharks visit a lift for Hamilton
Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town - While it will hardly come as consolation to their depressed fans, for the second time in Super Rugby history the Stormers have unintentionally boosted the economies of small New Zealand cities.
Domestic rivals the Sharks, winners of Saturday’s heart-stopping all-South African semi-final at Newlands, have crucially played their part in 2012 too, as the result prevented the Chiefs from having to visit our shores for the showpiece.
Instead their rather more small-scale stronghold of Hamilton is now set to reap the benefits of staging the final for the first time (Saturday 09:35, SA time) against the travel-weary men from KwaZulu-Natal.
It is the second time that a reasonably unfashionable New Zealand city has cashed in gleefully on the Stormers’ failure at the semis hurdle - in 1999, the heyday of their “Men in Black” era, they similarly surrendered this Cape Town-hosted fixture 33-18 to the Highlanders, giving that team rights to a final against the Crusaders at Carisbrook, Dunedin, which they eventually lost 24-19.
Saturday’s reverse, again depriving the near 50 000-capacity Newlands of a maiden Super Rugby showpiece, means the final goes to Waikato Stadium, almost exactly half the size.
Not surprisingly, Hamilton - population a modest 200 000 or so - has been engulfed in rugby fever following the Sharks’ storming of the Western Cape fortress.
National newspaper the New Zealand Herald reported on Monday that “Chiefs fever is spreading across the Waikato (region) as Hamilton gears up” for its first Super Rugby final.
“The 25 000-seat Waikato Stadium is expected to sell out ... hospitality hot spots, retailers and accommodation providers are preparing for an influx of fans.”
More locally, the Waikato Times has also been crammed with final-geared stories.
It said: “As Waikato prepares to host the biggest game in Chiefs Super Rugby history, a massive economic win is being predicted for the region.
“(Chiefs chief executive) Gary Dawson wants the entire region to take ownership of the historic clash.”
It quoted him as saying: “To be at the final this Saturday night, to see the Chiefs win, that’s the sort of thing you will one day tell your grandchildren about.
“The Chiefs and Waikato sports in general have been through some difficult times over the years and this is a chance to turn things around.”
Mayor Julie Hardaker, meanwhile, predicted that “conservatively this final could bring in NZ$3-to-5-million in new spend to the Hamilton economy”.
There are plans for a fan zone and fan walk in the city, and one influential local businessman has also promised a ticker tape parade “for when we win”.
Sharks enthusiasts may well have other ideas, despite their likely labelling as underdogs primarily because of the freak amount of travelling they have had to do in the competition in the last fortnight.
But even their New Zealand-born coach John Plumtree spoke on Saturday night, soon after the Newlands triumph, of the importance from a regional prosperity point of view of the Chiefs staging the final.
“It’s good, financially ... they need the money there, more than (we do) here.”*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing