Wellington – The Sharks have said they relish the underdog tag ahead of Saturday's Super 15 final where favourites Waikato Chiefs have been boosted by confirmation captain Craig Clarke has been cleared to play.
The Chiefs host the championship decider at home in Hamilton because of their superior placing in the regular season where they finished second while the Sharks were the sixth and last team to qualify for the play-offs.
To make the top six, after mixed fortunes through the first half of the year, the Sharks won six of their final seven regular season games.
They have since clocked up a Super finals series travelling record as they criss-crossed the Indian Ocean three times to beat the Queensland Reds in Brisbane, the Coastal Stormers in Cape Town and then to reach Hamilton.
But coach John Plumtree reckons doing it the hard way has been good for the team.
“It's given us that little bit of confidence going into the big game. We've beaten the Australian conference winners, the South African winners and now we take on the New Zealand winners, it's been great for our team spirit,” he said.
“We know we have a lot of support back home and we're also aware of the fact that no-one is really giving us a chance, so it's an opportunity to prove a lot of people wrong that we can pick ourselves up and go again.”
During the regular season the Sharks lost six of 16 matches while the Chiefs dropped four after being written off at the start of the year as a side that lacked depth of experience.
Much of their ability to close out matches lay with the leadership skills of Clarke whose appearance in the final was in doubt after he strained a knee ligament during last week's semi-final win against the Canterbury Crusaders.
He was only cleared to play late Thursday and his locking partner Brodie Retallick said it was the tonic the Chiefs were looking for.
“It's just awesome what he's done and to have him out there, just with his leadership around the field and come lineout time, it's definitely a bonus to have him there,” he said.
The Chiefs will be starting with the same run-on side that beat the Crusaders 20-17 in the semi-finals while the Sharks have made two changes to the side that beat the Stormers 26-19.
Paul Jordaan replaces the injured Tim Whitehead at inside centre and Patrick Lambie returns from injury to start at fullback ahead of Riaan Viljoen.
In the history of Super rugby the Chiefs have a slight edge over the Sharks winning eight of their 15 clashes including the last three.
Chiefs: Robbie Robinson; Tim Nanai-Williams, Andrew Horrell, Sonny Bill Williams, Asaeli Tikoirotuma; Aaron Cruden, Tawera Kerr-Barlow; Kane Thompson, Tanerau Latimer, Liam Messam; Brodie Retallick, Craig Clarke (captain); Ben Tameifuna, Mahonri Schwalger, Sona Taumalolo.
Replacements: Hika Elliot, Ben Afeaki, Michael Fitzgerald, Sam Cane, Brendon Leonard, Jackson Willison, Lelia Masaga.
Sharks: Pat Lambie; Louis Ludik, JP Pietersen, Paul Jordaan, Lwazi Mvovo; Frederic Michalak, Charl McLeod; Ryan Kankowski, Marcell Coetzee, Keegan Daniel (captain); Anton Bresler, Willem Alberts; Jannie du Plessis, Bismarck du Plessis, Tendai Mtawarira.
Replacements: Craig Burden, Wiehahn Herbst, Steven Sykes, Jean Deysel, Jacques Botes, Meyer Bosman, Riaan Viljoen.
Referee: Steve Walsh (AUS) – Sapa-AFP