Two rugby giants will contest the Super 15 final, those fiercest of rivals, New Zealand and South Africa.
But that’s a week away. Semi-finals will be played in both countries this weekend to determine the finalists.
In New Zealand, the Chiefs play the Crusaders at home in Hamilton on Friday.
In South Africa, the Stormers play the Sharks at home in Cape Town on Saturday.
Both the Stormers and the Chiefs did not play last weekend. It remains to be seen if the week’s rest for finishing first and second (respectively) on top of the table will be beneficial or disadvantageous.
Both the Crusaders and the Sharks played brilliantly to defeat the Bulls (South Africa) and the Reds (Australia), respectively, last weekend. Being match-fit and battle hardened could prove to be a winning advantage.
Stormers vs Sharks
The Sharks had to fly to Brisbane to play the Reds and have flown back to Cape Town to meet the Stormers. That is a journey too far, experience shows.
However, there was no evidence of jet lag when the Sharks beat the Reds 30-17 on Saturday. The Sharks played like sharks, ruthless, efficient and fast.
Admittedly, the Reds were without suspended play-maker Quade Cooper. When replacement flyhalf Ben Lucas left the field through injury, the Reds lost direction.
Coach Ewen McKenzie moved Will Genia from half-back to flyhalf, which compromised two key positions. Genia is possibly the best half-back in the world.
“Will allowed us into the game,” said Sharks coach John Plumtree, “because he was throwing a lot of skip passes and we read that.”
If the Sharks can overcome jet lag, they could beat the Stormers, despite playing away from home. The last time they met—also in Cape Town—the Sharks won 25-20.
Stormers coach Allister Coetzee said the Sharks were “superb” against the Reds.
“We understand the expectation of the fans and we’ll embrace the pressure,” he said. “It’s going to be an out-and-out physical battle … This is what we’ve been playing for.”
Chiefs vs Crusaders
In Christchurch, the Crusaders beat the Bulls 28-13. Captain Ritchie McCaw moved to No. 8 for the injured Kieran Read and dominated the game.
As expected, the young Bulls struggled with the intensity of finals rugby. Unexpectedly, Springboks flyhalf Morne Steyne had a poor game. The Bulls typically play off Steyne’s pin-point kicks.
With the kicking game compromised, the Bulls failed to adjust. They did score two tries to one, but the game was won in the second-by-second, uncompromising grind of high-pressure rugby.
The aggressive composure of the Crusaders forced the Bulls into errors, which led to penalties that made the result almost inevitable.
“The Crusaders kept putting us under pressure,” said Bulls captain Pierre Spies, “and they put points on the board and they played really well.
“We came back and scored some points, but the Crusaders were too good tonight.”
The Bulls are in a rebuilding year, so have out-performed expectations. Spies, too, has grown with the captaincy.
Crusaders flyhalf Dan Carter meets his All Black understudy Aaron Cruden when the Crusaders play the Chiefs on Friday. Carter was sublime against the Bulls. Cruden has been impressive all season.
The Chiefs lost to the Crusaders 28-21 earlier this month, also at home. The Crusaders have won seven finals. The Chiefs, none.
In another point, former All Black coach Wayne Smith coaches at the Chiefs. The former All Black flyhalf, knows Carter’s game better than anybody—he coached him for years. Additionally, watching Cruden play will reveal the tactical influence of coach Smith.
“Attitude is definitely the key,” Smith said. “You want to be at your best in the biggest moments and that’s what we’ve got to show we can do.”
Peter Lalanabarvi has over 30 years experience as a rugby writer.
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