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Chiefs and Sharks show creative play is not only entertaining - it also leads to a finals berth

Date

Paul Cully

A winning formula ... the Chiefs have shown other teams that creativity can pay off.

A winning formula ... the Chiefs have shown other teams that creativity can pay off. Photo: AFP

The Chiefs, loaded with talent and invention from No.9 through to No.15, kick away possession every 47 seconds, the fourth-lowest figure in the competition.

In matches involving the Sharks, whose forwards and backs have embraced the offload, the ball is in play for longer than others, an average of 35 minutes and 29 seconds.

This year's Super Rugby finalists have ended the argument about the need for balance between winning and entertaining rugby. This year, the two have become synonymous.

Of course, the connection is particularly valid in Australia. ARU chief John O'Neill, with one eye on the TV ratings and crowd numbers, has been making the case for years.

His appeals to the five Australian teams to produce a more pleasing brand of rugby might come across as haughty sermons, but they are not baseless. Nor do they fail to reflect the view of the supporters, who watch games such as the poor Brumbies v Reds encounter in round 14 and collectively shrug their shoulders. Enough of the argument that Australian derbies have been below-par because there is so much at stake and the players know each other. The fans are not buying it.

Crowd figures and TV audiences are down slightly in Australia this year. It is probably an expression of apathy or disappointment rather than a grand protest, but the trend is still lower.

Meanwhile, Chiefs No.10 Aaron Cruden has been given the freedom to express himself and chance his arm. As a proportion of the possession he receives, he runs the ball more (19.5 per cent) than any other five-eighth.

In Durban, the Sharks' brilliant loose forward Marcell Coetzee has been charging into contact and seeking support runners with Sonny Bill Williams-style passes. The Sharks offload 7.1 times a game, second only to the Chiefs.

The style of the respective finalists hasn't happened by accident. The Chiefs, who will win tomorrow night's decider, could have easily persisted with the experienced Brendon Leonard, an All Black, at halfback. Instead, coach Dave Rennie gave exciting youngster Tawera Kerr-Barlow an extended run. Will Genia has raised the bar for No.9s.

Similar adventure at the selection table has brought the best out of pacy fullback Robbie Robinson. In the pack, 130-odd kilogram prop Ben Tameifuna provided one of the highlights of the season, chugging along in support during a Chiefs' counterattack against the Force at a surprising rate of knots.

At the Sharks, Kiwi coach John Plumtree has shown plenty of faith in Coetzee and fellow youngsters Tim Whitehead and Paul Jordaan. He has stuck with the Frenchman Freddie Michalak even when the more structured talents of Pat Lambie were available. Willem Alberts has been picked in the second row to accommodate the ball-playing Ryan Kankowski at No.8.

In this environment graceful Springboks winger/centre J.P. Pietersen has been reinvented. He appears to be having fun.

It did not always appear likely that this year's Super tournament would produce such worthy finalists. Conservatism was not strictly an Australian malaise. The round eight game between the Crusaders and Stormers in Christchurch was a particular worry, because it appeared to produce a blueprint for success - and it was an ugly one.

Although the collisions were intense and the game intriguing in its own way, Israel Dagg, one of the world's most naturally gifted players, spent most of the night under instruction to kick the ball deep to opposite Joe Pietersen.

The Crusaders won that game but there was a price to pay. Only sporadically did they find fluidity in attack for the rest of the competition, and Dagg suffered his worst Super season to date. Eventually the Stormers also fell at the same semi-final hurdle, victims of their own lack of creativity.

Some might see a lesson in all of this for the Australian sides, particularly the Waratahs, but it's also a licence: a mandate to build a style that shows the players in the best light and provides a platform for their athletic ability, not a ceiling. Above all it is in their naked self-interest. If you want to win, you must also entertain.

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