It has been a brilliant Super Rugby season so far, with some surprises and some expected results. There have been players that have shone and others that have been swamped by mediocrity. There have been teams that have underperformed and others that have defied the odds and the stats. After all the numbers have been crunched and the stats analysed, we are left with four teams. These four will enter into the business end of the play-off matches – no more silly qualifiers and mathematical nonsense, just good old-fashioned knock-out rounds. The semi-finals.
Let’s have a quick look back at the weekend’s results between the Brumbies and Chiefs and the Sharks and Highlanders respectively.
The Brumbies finished fourth on the combined table and earned themselves a home advantage against the Chiefs, who finished fifth. This match was a repeat of the 2013 final, and was set to be a game that was split fairly even on the odds. The fact that the Brumbies had home advantage, and an overall winning percentage over the Waikato men, gave them the edge, but people were worried if it would be enough to take down the two-time defending champs.
The Brumbies came out firing and played to their plan, scoring the first three tries inside half an hour. The match looked like it would be a blowout, but only a fool would write off the Chiefs. After the initial shellshock, the Chiefs regathered and scored just before halftime but they were still behind by a distance at the break.
The second half was a chance for the Chiefs to do what they do best and open up the game with backline plays and a little bit of magic. Before long, they had created a match out of a seemingly lost cause and brought the scores even at 25-all. After about an hour we had ourselves a match that was heading into a sudden death-type scenario.
Even though the Chiefs had rattled the Brumbies, the home team kept their wits and scored one more try. After that they defended with everything they had, letting one unconverted try slip in to keep the game at a two-point difference. The final whistle was blown with the Chiefs falling just shy of an amazing comebackwin, bowing out without the possibility of creating a three-peat of championships. We were guaranteed a new champion this year.
The Sharks game wasn’t as expansive, but it was nonetheless exciting. The Sharks finished third and were up against the sixth-placed Highlanders. The Sharks were up against it with the knowledge that the Highlanders had defeated the Sharks in Durban in round 11 and the decline in form was affecting them on the scoreboard. Jake White kept making the excuse of fatigue, but the general public wasn’t sympathising with him – they wanted results.
During the first half, the Sharks relied on brute strength and carried the ball in close proximity to the rucks and mauls. The ball was rarely spread wide across the backline; rather the big men were sent into the inside or flyhalf channel, making a few metres here and there. The Sharks scrum proved to be the breaking point of the game with the young Thomas Du Toit causing unexpected damage to Chris King’s pride. The Sharks relied on power, and who could blame them with big units up front.
All their tries except one came from set plays, which is an indication of what game-plan Jake White was playing to. But the danger with this type of plan is that when a team manages to outmuscle the muscle, then there is little to fall back on. It has happened a few times in the regular season but worked to great effect this time. Even though the Sharks were in control in the first half, the Highlanders couldn’t turn their inside-22 opportunities into points, but they managed to lead into the half by four.
The Sharks seemed to slip off the horse during the second half and it looked like a round 11 repeat, but the boys in black didn’t panic and stayed true to their plan of structured power play and managed to force two more tries, creating a slim but defendable lead. The boot of the ‘mule’, Frans Steyn, secured the lead and the Sharks managed to see off the second New Zealand team of the week.
With these qualifier matches now in the bag, the semi-final matches are set with the Sharks flying off to Christchurch to face the much-fancied Crusaders and the Brumbies making the short hop to Sydney to take on the series favourites and minor premiers, the Waratahs.
The Sharks have been complaining about fatigue, but that problem has to solely be placed at their own feet as they didn’t employ a proper rotation policy in key areas. There were injuries but some of the players that could have and should have been rotated have played close to 1,000 minutes of rugby this season. This problem will play against them in New Zealand when they play a rested and hungry Crusaders side.
Even though the Sharks defeated the home team with 14, and at times 13 men, people doubt that they can make lightning strike twice. They have made life difficult for themselves with some key losses and created a difficult path to success, rather than banking a week off and securing a home semi-final. They now face the biggest challenge again.
The Sharks travel to Christchurch without Tendai Mtwawira as he battles to overcome a neck injury. He was a 50/50 chance before the flight and was left at home to fully recover. Instead, the Sharks have taken the impressive Du Toit who gave King an unexpected challenge this past weekend. It isn’t difficult to guess, but the Sharks look to play their natural game of power upfront and defence at the back. They would like to smother the opposition and force mistakes and penalties, but this tactic is difficult to employ against an expansive team like the Crusaders.
The Crusaders play the New Zealand style of rugby with backs and forwards able to link with each other, creating scoring opportunities and holes to expose a defensive line. The Sharks will have to be at their best to stop the Crusaders, who boast a powerful All Black contingent. Last time they met, the Sharks played with guts and desperation to pull off a miracle win, but they might not have enough in the tank to beat the Crusaders again.
Pundits are backing the Crusaders to beat the Sharks by a considerable margin. Even Dan Carter has taken on a self-imposed drinking ban to prepare for a serious battle at AMI Stadium.
The second semi-final is a bash ’em up local derby, with the Brumbies looking to overcome the much-favoured Waratahs. The past month of Super Rugby has clearly belonged to the New South Welshmen, with their incredible strike-rate and ability to play a balanced and convincing game of crash ball rugby mixed with wide, running rugby. It’s no mistake that Israel Folau tops the tryscoring stats as his team has been able to create opportunities through inventive play and simple draw-and-pass rugby. Folau seems to have a greater instinct to find a half gap and make it an opportunity to score a five-pointer. It is difficult to contain such a team and the Brumbies will have their hands full just trying to stop an all-out attack.
Even though the Brumbies have been in some slugfests this season and managed to come out on top, they might not find that the game will go their way this time. They do have a 50/50 result over the Waratahs this season with a win over them in round 5, but lost their last encounter by 31 points in round 17. It’s not an easy game for the ACT team but they have maintained self-belief this season to swing some important matches their way.
Both teams play a similar running game by giving it to the strike men out wide, Harry Speight and Folau respectively, but the Brumbies employ a more obvious kicking game. This tactic might change when they realise that kicking the ball to Folau is one way to have a counterattack launched at you. The Waratahs, on the other hand, like to keep the ball in hand and run it up the middle initially and then get it wide. Their scrum and set pieces have improved over the season and they have become the complete package under Michael Cheika’s guidance. Players within the Waratahs have lauded Cheika’s skills and remain loyal to him even in the face of other contracts.
Commentators and betting odds weigh heavily in favour of a Waratahs win and everyone expects that result. It is difficult to back the Brumbies for the win, especially with the ‘Tahs in this type of form.
No matter the results of the weekend, the final will be between international rivals, but the wise are saying that a Waratahs versus Crusaders final is on the table, which is what we would all like to see as these teams haven’t played against each other this season but have performed the best over the entire year.
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