Bismarck will be key
SHARKS hooker Bismarck du Plessis will make his 100th Super rugby appearance in the biggest game of his career at this level in the final against the Chiefs in Hamilton tomorrow.
Du Plessis has won a World Cup, a Tri-Nations, a Lions series and the Currie Cup, but if the Sharks prevail tomorrow, it will rank as one of the best performances of all time. For that to happen he will have to produce one of the best performances of his illustrious career.
The set piece is the Sharks' biggest asset and Du Plessis is crucial to that area of the game.
His power in the scrum, alongside props Jannie du Plessis and Tendai Mtawarira, can set a strong platform. In the lineouts, Bismarck has to hit his jumpers so the Sharks can launch attacks from that base and keep the Chiefs embroiled in a tighter battle than they would like.
In addition to his set piece skills and strength, the decorated hooker's other major area of influence will be at the breakdown, where he has operated like an extra openside flank this season. The Sharks cannot contemplate an early injury to their best tight-forward because forall replacement hooker Craig Burden's strengths, his lineout throwing is poor.
With Pat Lambie selected at fullback and Paul Jordaan at inside centre, coach John Plumtree has rolled the dice.
The formation with Riaan Viljoen at fullback worked like a charm against the Stormers last week, but Lambie is without a doubt the better player, and his skills are needed in a game likely to be decided by the slimmest of margins.
Jordaan's selection at inside centre is a big call, especially as, outside him, JP Pietersen is hardly an experienced midfielder, having played there for the first time this season.
But Pietersen's rich form is such that the closer he is to the action, the better it is for the Sharks. Bringing him into the game often is another way to upset the Chiefs. Jordaan is a forced selection, with Tim Whitehead injured.
The Sharks are on a good run, having won eight of their past nine matches, including two away play-off games against the Reds and the Stormers.
But everything is stacked against the Sharks - history, the venue, and the effects of a grinding travel schedule - not to mention the class of the team on the other side of the halfway line.
Chiefs coach Dave Rennie has turned the perennial under-achievers into New Zealand's best team, which is no small achievement.
The Chiefs have married their expansive style with improved set pieces and solid defence. They have attacking threats across the back division, with flyhalf Aaron Cruden and centre Sonny Bill Williams in the vanguard.
But up front is where they have developed into a team that could potentially win the championship.
Behind the pack scrumhalf Tawera Kerr-Barlow looks like a future All Black great.
For the Sharks it's simple. Dominate up front and there is a chance. Parity will not be enough. Only complete dominance by Bismarck and company will give them a chance of victory.