SA experts backing Sharks for a Super 15 series win
STORMERS captain Jean de Villiers and Bulls forwards coach Johann van Graan agreed yesterday that it would be tough to bet against the Sharks winning the Super Rugby final after their heroics in the past few weeks, despite their gruelling schedule counting against them.
Lions coach Johan Ackermann and Cheetahs coach Naka Drotske also rallied in support of the Super Rugby finalists, who defied the odds by sneaking into the play-offs through the back door, and playing their way into the final.
They said if the Sharks could overcome their physically draining travel schedule, they could end their Super Rugby hoodoo in what would be their fourth final since 1996.
The Sharks will line up against New Zealand's conference leaders, the Chiefs, in Hamilton on Saturday at 9.35am in the grand finale of the series. In an attempt to ensure that the players remain as fresh as possible the coaches opted to base the team in Sydney until Thursday before travelling to New Zealand.
Should the Sharks register a win, it would be the most remarkable Super Rugby series victory yet as they would have had a quarterfinal in Australia, a semifinal in SA and a final in New Zealand.
"The Sharks are on a roll, and if there is a team you won't bet against now, it is them," said Stormers captain Jean de Villiers.
"It will be fantastic for them if they can go on to win it. They've showed they can overcome the travelling, and it may be tough for them, but I think SA should get behind them. They have a great chance of winning it."
Van Graan echoed De Villiers's sentiments and said: "It is difficult to bet against this Sharks team. They showed in the last two weeks that they are not influenced by public sentiment and their forwards have been playing outstanding rugby.
"With guys like Willem (Alberts) playing at lock and Bismarck (du Plessis) playing a fetching role, one could say they are playing with five looseforwards, and Ryan Kankowski has been doing well in the lineouts.
"Obviously their draining travel schedule will result in the final being an even greater test for them, but I think they have a good chance of winning," he said.
Van Graan, however, did not write off the Chiefs. The clash will mark an equally significant moment in their history, as it is their first home final, and he said the Sharks would have to deliver a superb performance in all departments to emerge victorious.
"The Chiefs are in the same boat as the Sharks because they have never won the competition, and just as the Sharks have a few players in their team who featured in the 2007 final, the Chiefs boast a handful of guys who played in the 2009 final," said Van Graan.
"The Chiefs were also one of the top teams throughout the season and they were unlucky not to finish at the top of the log, so the Sharks will have to work hard for a win."
Ackermann also singled out the Sharks' travel fatigue as one of the biggest challenges facing the side, but he said if they could replicate the fine performances on attack and defence which earned them victories against the Reds and Stormers, they would be hard to beat.
"They have vast international experience and they are high on confidence after morale-boosting victories in their last four games, but the question is if they will have the energy to deliver another big performance after travelling to Australia, back to SA and now to New Zealand," said Ackermann.
"But if they can shake off the fatigue, they can win. Their forwards have been brilliant in the last few weeks, and that could be invaluable against a Chiefs pack that relies more on hard-working players than international stars," he said.
"So their pack could prove to be the big difference between the sides in the end. But it will depend on their physical state."
Drotske, meanwhile, gave the side a 50% chance of winning, but he said they have the players and the drive to win the title.
"They showed that they can handle the travelling by beating the Stormers, and their pack destroyed the Reds and Stormers forwards," said Drotske. "This was balanced by Frederic Michalak's fine performance at flyhalf. But the Chiefs have been in fantastic form this season, so the Sharks face a tough test."
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