The Super Rugby competition has reached the crescendo. It is play-off time. The Finals Series. It is the time where the big players ‘stand up’ and it all occurs on this Super Rugby Saturday.
Three matches will determine the outcome for next weekend–the semi finals. One proponent has been decided. Last night, the Highlanders outlasted the Brumbies 9-15 in a weather affected match. It was brutal, and the following three games below will continue that trend. For New Zealand (NZ) rugby fans, fingers are crossed that they might very likely see an all local semi final weekend. After Sunday morning, they will know if that dream is realized, so sit back and enjoy the following breakdown of all three quarter final matches.
Super Rugby Saturday
Last week, Super Rugby lead reporter Scott Hornell detailed the upcoming quarter final matches. That analysis still stands, even as each team has been announced. The men who have been selected must still go out to face the other though. What has occurred over this week are intriguing developments deciphered from comments made from coaches, players and the media. The pre-game interplay and mental games began even before the Chiefs left for Africa on Monday.
Rugby veracular aside, the conference system has thrown up some consternation and conjecture. While every fan has their own opinion, the coaches and players are bound by contracts and find it hard to criticize. They do not want to bring the sport into disrepute, but looking at the comments this week, some have been close-to or on target. Some believe the NZ teams scored more competition points and deserve to host their own quarter final. While sincere, it is not what the organization has created.
As any player will tell you, “play the team in front of you” and the Crusaders and Chiefs must do their best to achieve their collective objective. And that starts tonight.
Quarter final #2: Hurricanes v Sharks. 7:35pm, Westpac Stadium, Wellington
Hurricanes side look at revenge after Sharks Rd 11 loss
And so to the capital of New Zealand we head at 7:35pm (NZ time) The build-up this week has focused on the performance of the Hurricanes last week. It was unexpected, to gain that bonus point. Shifting them from seventh place up to first in a matter of hours was sensational. It was a tumultuous change in fortunes–earned, not lucky at all. It meant that they could play at home, and face the eighth best team–the Sharks.
Chris Boyd and his assistant John Plumtree (ex Sharks coach) will have studied the South African side. A loss to the Sharks in round 11, 32-15. It was an upset to the NZ teams fortunes, but since that match they have won five games straight. The side seem to have been drawn together from that loss and have a complete game. Further proof that 2015 was not an isolated event and last weekend played into their hands, leaving them top of the table yet again.
Canes out to counter Sharks tactics
After analyzing their opposition, they know that teams strengths, tendency to favour forward play and tactical percentage game. That will mean Beauden Barrett will need to hold a near-perfect kicking game. 27/31 kicks since the restart of the competition. He has grown incredibly this season, so with support from James Marshall and sniping kicks and running by TJ Perenara (main picture) they can use the ball intelligently. It will still require a big forward effort.
Lonnie Uhila starts at loosehead prop, in place of Reggie Goodes, who was unavailable for selection after leaving the field with concussion. Victor Vito will run out for his 98th cap, beside the hugely strong Brad Shileds and the excitement machine, Ardie Savea. Beside that, the pack remains solid and led by the best hooker in the game, Dane Coles.
Hurricanes head coach Chris Boyd has revealed that Julian Savea is “pretty grumpy” after he was dropped to the bench pic.twitter.com/P4dckAoUd5
— Steve Haag Sports (@STEVEHAAGSPORT) July 21, 2016
All Black Julian Savea left on the bench
One significant omission has been Julian Savea. Overshadowed by his ‘little brother’ Ardie; he has had a sensational season. Julian appears to have several issues that linger on his game. The player who rampaged through France at the Rugby World Cup is not the same in 2016. Already having been dropped earlier in the year, after a lackluster All Blacks performance, the Hurricanes favourite seems bound by a less than satisfactory physical condition. Not as fast as he should be, he is frustrated and it means he has been left on the bench. Replaced by Jason Woodward, expect Savea to come on and hope to prove his impact tonight.
The team from Durban may have finished higher this year, if not for a single draw and losing Patrick Lambie. His return has been blocked, and that seems to have been caused by a clerical error–Lambie was made ineligible for this match by SANZAAR. It places an amount of pressure on Garth April (pictured) which Willie le Roux and JP Pietersen need to act as . To bolster the side, captain Tendai ‘the Beast’ Mtawarira returns and Stefan Lewies rejoins the tight five.
Sharks a tough unit
It makes the Gary Gold coached side a tough unit, although out wide, some question remain on their effectiveness. Only Leolin Zas, with eight tries, seems a genuine threat and he will hope that centre pairing of Andre Esterhuizen and Paul Jordaan can supply clean ball. If they kick poorly though, expect them to be peppered with ‘Canes attack all game.
Another point of note is the former relationship assistant coach John Plumtree has. The former coach of the Sharks knows the two sides intimately. His assessment is that his team will need to face the Sharks at home, and they will be a real handful. “This team’s not scared of travelling. They’ve got a lot of massive characters in that team and they know how to win in New Zealand,” Plumtree said. “Them coming to us, it won’t be a problem for them.”
Quarter finals #3 – Lions v Crusaders. 4:30pm (local time) Emirates Airlines Park, Johannesburg
Lions lay in wait for Crusaders
The Lions deserve to be in the finals series. No questions should be asked of their credentials. Conference winners, the image below shows a team who earned a home quarter final place (and might have been seeded number one, if not for a strategical error). After finishing near to the top-the-table, it may be a case of ‘how can they sustain that powerful position?’
They lay in wait for the Crusaders. A team they only narrowly lost to in Round Six, it may be a game that the home side can approach with confidence. Jaco Kriel (above) and coach Johan Aakermann will have made the conscious decision to rest players last week, so they can be ‘fresh’ for this game. But how will a fresh team beat a team hardened from consistent play? It seems to be a risk worth taking. Kriel is joined by Warren Whiteley in the loose. Their challenge against Matt Todd and Kieran Read is mouth-watering–almost test match level good.
Faf de Klerk is talented, almost a jitterbug in his quick reactions. He feeds Elton Jantjies who is becoming more accustomed to big matches. He faced Ireland wearing a Springbok jersey a did a surprisingly good job. The kick game will too be important, and he can be assisted here be Andries Coetzee. But the most potent weapon appears to Ruan Combrinck. If not the most potent South African back, he is near the top. The right-hand flank maybe a channel used well by the Lions.
Praise given to former NZ Super Rugby winner
Note: during the week, compliments were paid to former Blues/All Black Carlos Spencer for his development work with the Golden Lions and the African province. It shows how the influence of the three-time Super Rugby title holder has blended into the African side. So, in a way, once again Spencer will face his former foes, the Crusaders.
Opposing them will be the NZ team, former title holders on numerous occasions. Slightly wounded, from the loss inflicted on them by the Hurricanes. Not a terrible injury, but a lion can ‘smell a weakness’ and that is directly related to Nemani Nadolo’s loss. Missing due to a hamstring strain, it is a big loss. While Joni Macili is an able replacement, he will not draw the same attention, thus leaving his opponents with more defenders to beat. Israel Dagg is a constant threat, and so should Johnny McNichol, but without Nadolo, many see a lessening of the Crusaders outside threat.
And to create that, young first-five Richie Mounga must be at his peak. A rising star, his season has been good but not astronomical like Beauden Barrett’s. He was smothered last week and backline coach Tabai Matson needs to use Ryan Crotty to deflect Lionel Mapoe, and open some space. Do that, and the Crusaders have a better chance of getting in behind the Lions line. Loose forward Jordan Taufua can also assist here, supporting and running lines to confuse the Lions.
Plenty of time to watch footage of Lions on long flight to Africa
Both sides will have watched tape of the other. The visitors may have identified scrum weaknesses. Sadly for them, they had to leave RWC winner Joe Moody at home also, so will use Wyatt Crockett as their fulcrum to balance the scrum upon. He will live up to the expectation, as will Sam Whitelock who recovered from a virus. That places Scott Barrett onto the bench, where late in the match, substitutes will be pivotal. As will be fan support back home.
— BNZ Crusaders (@crusadersrugby) July 23, 2016
The Ellis Park effect has brought down many teams. As well it should, it holds the same imposing affect as Eden Park does in NZ. Expect the crowd to be passionate and baying for Crusader blood. Not as intimidating as in the past, still it is a cauldron where only the best Super Rugby sides can prevail. History favours the visitors: Crusaders have won 19 of their last 23 games against South African opposition, including victories in each of their last four finals games against them.
Quarter final #4 – Stormers v Chiefs. 7:00pm (local time) DHL Newlands, Cape Town
Stormers ready to match-up against NZ team
Last Word On Sports writer Mike Pulman has written on the Chiefs for the entire season. He see’s this match, as most fans of the two-time Super Rugby champions do, as a ‘clutch’ game. His pregame report looks at the home sides chances–which are very good. Only up until the final 10 minutes in Dunedin last week, they might have been top-of-the-table. This week it is sudden death. It is all on the line.
The Stormers however, are a different study case. Not having played any NZ side (they are in a different conference) it will test the Cape Town side. Co-captain Schalk Burger (pictured) will run out with a group who achieved their goal of winning their conference. Step one. Now they can take step two–win at home to secure a semi final berth.
“The team is intent on going out there and embracing the occasion of playing a Vodacom Super Rugby quarter-final at DHL Newlands,” said head coach Robbie Fleck. He will be pleased to have locks Eben Etzebeth and Pieter-Steph du Toit return after a weeks rest. The hard working duo lead the competition as a unit. It makes for a combative scrum who will challenge the Chiefs group, led by Sam Cane and Brodie Retallick. And livewire Nic Groom directing the action, they will be a handful for Brad Webber to manage.
Home sides backline may sense opportunity
The backline might not have the name-status as Aaron Cruden and Daminan McKenzie do, but they have a strong midfield. Huw Jones and Damian de Allende may feel that the missing Chiefs (Charlie Ngatai, Seta Tamanivalu) mean there is opportunity to find a way through. That may seem true, but what looks good on paper can feel twice as hard on the pitch. It will take all their powers to challenge the highly affective Hamilton-based team.
Statistics favour the Chiefs
OPTA stats have not been so kind to the hosts. The Stormers have won only one of their seven finals games including none of the last four. While not good reading, they will have the mental strength to turn around those numbers. A powerful province who have gone close before, the fact NZ teams are so confident might be turned against them. African players are proud and will know that Burger is nearing the end of his term as a Stormer (moving to Saracens) and his team mates will do their best to provide an opportunity to hang a winners medal around his large frame.
With emotion, and hard work, the hosts can equal the Chiefs in terms of motivation. What they need to do most, is manage the ‘big occasion’. Their opponents have players who have been to finals before, so the leadership of Cruden and Cane will need to be matched. That will be the winning of the game.
All the words now end. It is down to the 15 men on each team to accomplish the desired result. Those who have the highest desire, should prevail and take their place in the semi finals of Super Rugby 2016. LWOS wishes them all the very best.
Statistics courtesy of OPTA Stats.
“Main photo credit”