Wellington – The Sharks cast travel fatigue aside and the Waikato Chiefs refused to bow to Super rugby's glamour unit to set up an unlikely showdown in the 2012 final in Hamilton next weekend.
The Sharks withstood a stoppage-time onslaught to defeat the Western Stormers 26-19 in an all-South African semi-final at Newlands Saturday, and face another arduous travel schedule for their date with the Chiefs.
The Chiefs were also forced to defend desperately in the closing minutes of their New Zealand-derby semi-final as they clung to a 20-17 lead to beat the All Blacks-laden Canterbury Crusaders.
Neither side has won the Super championship before although the Sharks will now be in their fourth final and the Chiefs their second.
Three weeks ago the Sharks' season was all but over as they trailed the Central Cheetahs 6-15 at half-time in their final round-robin match.
But 28 unanswered points after the break earned them the crucial bonus point that put them above the ACT Brumbies and Wellington Hurricanes and into the play-offs.
Then followed a flight to Brisbane to beat defending champions Queensland Reds in their first knock-out match, a return flight to South Africa to beat the top-of-the-table Stormers and now they pack again to head to New Zealand.
It's a punishing travel schedule, but coach John Plumtree is in no doubt the players will handle it.
“I know personally the jet lag when travelling there is terrible,” he said.
“But the players are younger and they get over it quicker. It's not ideal but we will try to prepare smartly and get these boys back up. We're representing South Africa now.”
The Stormers were well rested heading into their clash with the Sharks after a bye last weekend and were first to score with an early Peter Grant penalty.
Recalled France fly-half Frederic Michalak replied with a penalty and a drop goal to put the Sharks in front and they were never behind from there.
Over the closing minutes, and trailing by seven points, the Stormers camped close to the try-line as they sought the converted try that would have taken them into extra time, but to no avail.
The Chiefs, also rested after a bye last week, ran up a 17-6
lead over the Crusaders after opening at an extreme pace that forced the seven-times champions into uncharacteristic handling errors, turnovers and missed tackles.
A try on the stroke of half-time kept the Crusaders' hopes alive and by the end of the third quarter they were only three points adrift at 20-17.
In a tense closing stanza the Chiefs' defence withstood every attack the Crusaders could muster and a chance to equalise with a 45-metre penalty by the usually reliable Dan Carter in the 75th minute dropped under the bar.
“A couple of scrums went backwards and a couple of lineouts were overthrown so it certainly wasn't perfect, but it was good enough,” said captain Craig Clarke as the Chiefs waited for the outcome of the Sharks-Stormers match to determine where the final would be played. – Sapa-AFP