Chiefs fans breathed a sigh of relief today as co-captain Craig Clarke passed a fitness test and was named in the side to play the Sharks in Saturday night’s Super XV final in Hamilton.
Clarke is an inspirational leader, the glue that holds the Chiefs’ pack together. Like Brad Thorne was for the All Blacks, Clarke is the work-horse of the Chiefs line-up, toiling away in the ‘dark room’ while his more flamboyant team-mates score the tries and hog the spotlight. It was startling to see the difference his absence made when the Chiefs hosted the Crusaders in the final week of round-robin play, when their scrum was grossly under-powered and their line-out simply a shambles.
The Sharks, who have stormed in to the final on the back of impressive performances against the Reds and the Stormers, have had an arduous month of travel, having flown from Africa to Brisbane, back to the Republic, and now to New Zealand in their quest to secure the title.
Hamilton’s Rugby Park sold out within hours of tickets going onsale as patriotic locals worked themselves in to a frenzy of excitement in the build up to the Chiefs second-ever Super Rugby final, and their first on home turf. In their only other final appearance they were thumped by the Bulls, who left the chiefs bemused after a stunning start to the match.
Putting aside the Sharks’ red-hot form and the Chief’s passionate home-town support, the game boils down to one key element – can the Sharks contain the home-sides’ outrageously talented backline, or will Cruden, Sonny-Bill and their cohorts cut loose and tear the visitors apart?