The Sharks are the best side in the Super 15 but they won't win the title. The South African sixth seeds are playing top rugby, shifting the ball to promising places and allowing dynamic forwards to roam free.
Their demolition of the Reds at the foreboding Suncorp Stadium was most impressive and mainly enjoyable to watch.
However, the travel factor will do John Plumtree's side in. To take the title, the Sharks return home to play the dour Stormers and, presuming they win that, must head back this way to face the Crusaders or Chiefs. The Sharks will have cabin fever _ that's aircraft cabin fever. Henry Kissinger would have struggled with that schedule. Flying a team from Durban to Brisbane, back to Durban then Cape Town, then off to Christchurch or Hamilton in less than three weeks and with all the match action, training and injuries involved shows why the Super 15 is an international sports joke.
Springboks coach Heyneke Meyer will be chewing lumps out of his nails because a lot of his Test players, including the front row, will be beaten up before the new Sanzar championship begins.
The Brisbane qualifying final was way better than the Christchurch one, which was messy and boring for a neutral to watch. The Crusaders have the players, especially in the forwards, but they don't have the game to match on this showing. Okay, they did what they had to do, but ... the amazing 2011 season may have been an anomaly. The Crusaders aren't the same since Robbie Deans left.
Richie McCaw was magnificent against the scratchy Bulls _ he is a freak of nature, a man with a huge motor who knows how to use it. But the Crusaders weren't playing particularly inspiring or clever rugby and the All Black selectors sure knew what they were doing overlooking over-sized centre Robbie Fruean.
The classy Sharks had the Reds completely sussed from the outset and it was a relief to see them win. The power of the Sharks' forwards meant they could park pods of players wide to attack. The poised, upright JP Petersen is in lovely attacking and defensive form. The visitors stepped forward and smashed the Reds' ball runners from the outset, and the lightweight Reds couldn't handle the physical attention. The Sharks provided all the stars in this game, apart from Suncorp Stadium, which generates the best atmosphere you will ever sit in, which translates brilliantly through television.
Despite their defeat, the under-resourced Reds have over-achieved again and showed Auckland two things _ we got the stadium decision horribly wrong and deposed Blues coach Pat Lam is an excuse maker who talks gobbledygook. Does anyone know what Lam was on about when he claimed to have been ``protecting'' all and sundry before taking a ``final hit''? What did he think he was doing _ guarding the President? Such garbled nonsense made me worried about his state of mind. We took a hit having him as coach. Pat Lam needs to take a break.
Hopefully the Chiefs will beat the Crusaders and then host the exuberant Sharks in the final. The Crusaders have worked the New Zealand rugby system brilliantly but they are living off the Deans School of Excellence, although time is running out on that score.
Once rising All Black contenders realise they don't have to go to Christchurch and other franchises match their scouting clout, the game will be up for the Crusaders unless they can find another master coach like Deans.
The Chiefs have set the pace this year and turned their franchise around after accommodating or having to put up with NZRU favourite Ian Foster way longer than necessary.
The Chiefs don't deserve to be usurped at the penultimate hurdle but if Kieran Read returns from injury, my money would be on the red and black machine to win the day.
The Crusaders will shut down Aaron Cruden, forcing him to make wrong moves. Tawera Kerr-Barlow is accustomed to latitude and will come unstuck when he tries to run against McCaw and co. The Chiefs will get mowed down in the scrums. The week off won't help the Chiefs either. Fingers crossed though, for Dave Rennie's team to come through at their fine little home ground. A rousing battle, a right old ding dong, is in store. – The New Zealand Herald