They boast the worst success rate of any Super Rugby franchise in the title decider and defied one of the toughest travel schedules in the competition's history to reach this year's final, but the Sharks are confident of preying on a rival also haunted by under-achievement.
The Durban-based team arrive in Hamilton tonight, the final destination of a trans-continental journey that has seen them cross the Indian Ocean to Brisbane, return to Cape Town and then pack their bags for Waikato Stadium via Sydney and Auckland.
Despite that punishing itinerary and the fact they have previously lost finals away at Eden Park and Canberra Stadium, the seven-time semifinalists are optimistic of eventually going all the way against the New Zealand side condemned to suffer the heaviest defeat ever experienced in the tournament's showpiece event three years ago in Pretoria.
The Sharks spent their second day in familiar coastal surroundings in Coogee yesterday to refresh themselves before venturing into Chiefs territory.
Their New Zealand coach, John Plumtree, downplayed the franchise's failure to clear the final hurdle, claiming the only lingering disappointment was losing the 2007 decider at Kings Park to a last-minute try to Bryan Habana.
The former Wellington coach was an assistant at the Sharks then and graduated to the top job next season so he has enough background to sense the current squad was capable of succeeding where others have failed.
“We've had a bit of experience losing big games (in the past),” he admitted but his blend of youth and experience were at least building momentum after a tricky opening to the campaign.
“We had a pretty tough start, four away games in the first six. We've had a few injuries to the forwards but now the pack's starting to operate properly and we've developed some really nice young backs.
“I'm really positive about this team and the future. They've been outstanding in the last couple of weeks, the character and leadership has really grown.”
The Sharks are on a four-match winning streak, a sequence that started with a win over the Bulls in round 17. Crucially, Springbok forwards Beast Mtawarira, Willem Alberts and Ryan Kankowski are fit and firing to help the pack provide the platform for departing French import Frederic Michalak.
Mtawarira and Kankowski were missing when the Chiefs won 18-12 at Durban in April while Patrick Lambie, the Sharks No 10 that day, is back in the mix after six weeks off with an ankle injury.
“We were in that contest with a few minutes to go and I think we're a better side now than we were then,” said Plumtree, who is expected to name his team today.
Sudden-death victories to end the Reds' reign and eliminate the top-seeded Stormers justify that view and Plumtree vowed his players, though tired, would not go to sleep on Saturday night.
“No one's probably expected us to get to this point. We're doing it the hard way, it's galvanising us, it's giving us confidence,” he said.
“We won't roll over and die.”
Captain and openside flanker Keegan Daniel echoed his coach's bullish approach.
“We're pretty confident. We've brought a bit of momentum the last four weeks in the way we've performed.”
The first and only time the Chiefs contested the final - at Loftus Versfeld in 2009 - the decider produced 78 points, including 61 for the rampant Bulls.
This year's finalists also favour expansive rugby, though Keegan was not expecting a free-flowing spectacle.
- © Fairfax NZ News
Family counts blessings after superbug scare (graphic content)
Should there be golden point extra time in Super Rugby?Related story: (See story)