The Chiefs have lost star winger Sitiveni Sivivatu for the Super 14 final as Ian Foster’s side is served up one more major obstacle to overcome as they look for the happy ending to their fairytale season.
Sivivatu was today ruled out of the trip to Pretoria to face the Bulls for the final early next weekend (3.30am Sunday kickoff NZ time) after he dislocated his shoulder in Friday night’s epic 14-10 semifinal victory over the Hurricanes in Hamilton.
The defection of the game-breaking winger is a serious setback for the Chiefs, appearing in their first Super rugby final, but just one more hurdle that they are going to have to clear in a season that has thrown a fair few of them up in their pathway.
Marc Hinton writes for Stuff.co.nz that it wasn’t all bad news, though, for the Chiefs today with blockbusting No 8 Sione Lauaki cleared to travel after his neck injury suffered against the Canes, and star All Black midfielder Richard Kahui also given the green light to make the trip for the final.
If Kahui is able to finally shake off the calf muscle injury that’s seen him miss the last two matches, it would be a huge fillip for the Chiefs who have dealt pretty well with injuries this entire campaign.
Sivivatu’s class cannot be replaced, especially in the form he showed on Friday night, but the Chiefs do have a couple of pretty viable alternatives. Depending on whether Kahui is cleared for a return at No 13, Foster could move Dwayne Sweeney back out to the wing or pick speedster Sosene Anesi who is a more than capable performer at this level.
Foster was certainly under no illusions as to the magnitude of the challenge the Chiefs now face when he spoke to Fairfax Media today, but nor was the latest task one he was looking to hide from.
“It’s pretty clearly a tough challenge. They have a formula that works very, very well for them,” he said of the Bulls who eliminated the Crusaders 36-23 in an impressive second semifinal performance.
“But we’ve been there about six weeks ago, we’ve been through it, and I think that’s going to probably be useful for both teams. Certainly it gave us a good indicator of what’s to come.”
The Chiefs coach, of course, was referring to the 33-27 round-robin victory by the Bulls at Loftus on April 26. But he’s pretty sure he’s taking a more complete side to the republic this time, and not just because he has at least half of his wonder winger tandem back in the form of Lelia Masaga after both missed that earlier matchup.
Ad Feedback “I think we’ve grown a little bit since that time,” said Foster. “In the conditions we’ve had we’ve seen our forwards grow a couple of steps really at this end of the season. They haven’t received a lot of accolades and I know there’s not a lot of big names in that tight five, but they’ve been performing magnificently well and we’re going to take some confidence in that area going through to the final.”
Foster, like many of us, went through the gamut of emotions watching the Bulls-Crusaders semifinal, first figuring he was in for a home final, then being struck with the cold, hard reality of the situation his team now faced.
“I was really impressed with the Crusaders actually,” said Foster. “In the first 20-25 minutes they put them under a lot of pressure, and used the ball really, really well. But we saw a Bulls team that at home, particularly when they’re playing teams that have just arrived at altitude, like to play with a bit of width and tempo themselves.
“They really took it to the Crusaders in that second and third quarter and once they got that lead really went back to their strengths – their big forwards getting over the gain line and playing territory and squeezing teams.” Foster was also anxious to shrug off any negative connotations as to the extent of the task his side faces, having to combine the travel factor with arguably the toughest away assignment in world rugby – confronting the Bulls at their Loftus stronghold.
“We’re jumping out of our skin, we’re in the final, we’re excited,” said the coach, no doubt keen to use the occasion to help his men overcome some of the variables working against them. The Sivivatu setback is just another of those factors that ratchet up the degree of difficulty.
“It’s clearly a massive challenge hopping on a plane and going to South Africa and playing a final. And I’m sure we’ll get a lot of stats showing us that history is against us, blah, blah blah.
“That’s what history is about — but we wouldn’t want to be anywhere else right now than in the final,” added Foster.
Besides, overcoming the odds is nothing new for the Chiefs this campaign. Remember that tight five early on? Remember that 0-3 start? Remember the South African bogey? The inability to handle the Hurricanes’ physical style? Remember all those injuries that were supposed to knock this largely inexperienced side off its kilter?
“This whole campaign has thrown up a lot of challenges for us,” agreed Foster. “We’ve effectively had to rebuild a tight five, we’ve had to go through the middle part of the championship without the likes of Siti, Lelia and Brendon, and yet we’ve still been able to maintain our style.
“That shows the players are confident in the way we’re playing. I think we’re maturing as a team and particularly up front there’s a lot of guys who came into this competition not known very well who are now playing some big rugby. We want the opportunity now to put that on the big stage.”
A smart coach like Foster clearly would have taken plenty from the first 25 minutes when an urgent Crusaders side put the Bulls to the sword. The New Zealanders were possibly only one more score – or one less sinbinning – away from really putting the game away.
“But if you allow them to get over the gain-line and get their big ball-carriers in behind you, they are a hard team to stop,” he added of key Bulls forwards such as Pierre Spies, Deon Stegmann and Victor Matfield. “They’re good enough to have periods of the game where they are going to put you under that sort of pressure.
“It’s a matter of defending very well, and also putting a lot of pressure on their tactical kicking and clearly Steyn with his drop-kicks. It’s almost like both teams will know each other pretty well when they get out on the park next Saturday.”
The Chiefs will start their epic journey to Pretoria at 3am tomorrow (Monday) from their Waikato Stadium base in Hamilton, and will head straight to the venue of just South Africa’s second Super rugby final.
There’s no magic formula, either, for dealing with the toll that trip takes, but Foster says the key is to get all the little things right to give yourself the best chance. Besides, Foster figures it won’t do his men any hard to be immersed in finals fever for a few days leading up to the game of their lives.
Chiefs squad for final:
Forwards: Sona Taumalolo, Joe Savage, Nathan White, James McGougan, Aled de Malmanche, Hika Elliot, Craig Clarke, Kevin O’Neill, Toby Lynn, Liam Messam, Tanerau Latimer, Serge Lilo, Sione Lauaki.
Backs: Toby Morland, David Bason, Stephen Donald, Mike Delany, Callum Bruce, Richard Kahui, Dwayne Sweeney, Jackson Willison, Sosene Anesi, Lelia Masaga, Mils Muliaina.Tweet