The Waikato Chiefs powered to their first ever Super Rugby title on Saturday with a sparkling 37-6 win over the travel-weary Sharks in Hamilton.
The Chiefs lived up to their billing as the most entertaining side in this season’s championship and also outshone the hardworking South African forwards to bury memories of their final humiliation to the Bulls three years ago.
The Chiefs made light of difficult conditions at Waikato Stadium and led through tries by Tim Nanai-Williams, Kane Thompson and Lelia Masaga before Sonny Bill Williams marked his farewell appearance with his side’s fourth and final effort.
The Chiefs become the sixth winners in 17 seasons of Super Rugby competition, while the Sharks simply looked drained by a third straight playoff away from home and have now lost all four of their final appearances.
The Sharks shocked the Queensland Reds in a playoff and overcame the Stormers, who led the regular-season rankings, in the semi-finals but managed only a pair of penalties on Saturday from France fly-half Frederic Michalak.
“The boys were getting up in their faces,” Chiefs captain Craig Clarke said. “We’ve got a heap of pride in our defence. We talked about not giving over and keeping them to no tries. “This is awesome.”
The South Africans trailed 13-3 at the interval and had been the best second-half team in the competition going into the final but unravelled as they chased the game as the Chiefs ran the ball back and kicked intelligently.
““The Chiefs were outstanding tonight,” Sharks captain Keegan Daniel said. ““They were outstanding all season.”
After the ignominy of being on the wrong end of the most one-side Super Rugby final when they lost 61-17 to the Bulls in 2009, the Chiefs can now brag of matching fellow New Zealand franchises the Canterbury Crusaders and the Auckland Blues as champions.
The Bulls, the ACT Brumbies and the Queensland Reds are the other former winners.
The Chiefs made clear their intentions from the start, spurning the chance to call the mark in the opening minute and running the ball instead.
Although Michalak put the Sharks 3-0 ahead with a penalty for offside after Ryan Kankowski stole a lineout, the home side forced an attacking turnover by sheer weight of numbers.
That galvanised the Chiefs and Aaron Cruden set in motion the move for the opening try with a chipped kick that Sharks forward Pat Lambie spilled.
Referee Steve Walsh played advantage for the knock on and a line break from Williams, in his last match before moving to Japan, helped create an opening on the left for Nanai-Williams to power through from a pass by Andrew Horrell.
Cruden, the leading scorer in this year’s championship, added the conversion and made it 10-3 from a penalty out wide as the Sharks suddenly looked vulnerable.
Cruden kicked for 13-3 after Walsh reversed a penalty, whistling Jannie du Plessis for a smack on Mahonri Schwalger after initially calling the Chiefs hooker for a forearm challenge.
There was no let up in the second half as Thompson picked up and shunted through a gaping hole in the defence to touch down next to the posts. Cruden converted for 20-3 and the Sharks were staring at defeat.
Michalak kicked three points from a rare attacking penalty but Williams stopped an attempted Sharks breakaway and replacement back Masaga jinked one way and then the other to beat two men and race in for another try.
Williams then sent the home fans into raptures, diving over for a 76th-minute try and leaping chest first into the crowd to celebrate.
Cruden’s conversion took him to 17 points for the match and 251 for the season, second only to Morne Steyn’s 2010 record of 263.