Chiefs need Messam magic to stop Crusaders
July 24, 2013
Chiefs captain Liam Messam was missing when they were thrashed by the Crusaders on July 5 © Getty Images
New Zealand's hopes of winning Super Rugby 2013 now rest with either the Chiefs or Crusaders and if you go by the form book there is no doubt the Crusaders will go in as firm favourites at Hamilton's Waikato Stadium on Saturday.
The two sides clashed as recently as July 5 and the Crusaders thrashed the reigning champions, but there's one significant difference between three weeks ago and this week. It is the Chiefs' emotional leader Liam Messam. With 111 Super Rugby caps, the role he plays in this entire Chiefs environment should not be under-stated. Purely and simply, when Messam plays well the Chiefs are difficult to stop.
Last year, at a very similar time, the Chiefs had their challenges leading into the play-offs and with the benefit of experience they know exactly what is required if they are to be successful.
There is a significant difference in this season though. The Crusaders travel to Hamilton in a very rich vein of form. Some of New Zealand's very best players are at the top of their game. This isn't just about leadership. This is about the actions they are showing.
Compared to last year when the sides met in the semi-finals and the Chiefs took a 20-17 win, the Crusaders this time are right on top of their game. In 2012 they went to Hamilton with some doubts and came up short. In 2013 they go there playing like the great Crusaders teams of old.
Now I may be biased but I believe that this is the final. If the Chiefs can win home field advantage it will be enough to see them home. If the Crusaders win they have the class to travel to either Pretoria, or Canberra, and still win.
When looking at any game, first and foremost, look at forward pack versus forward pack.
With the experience the Crusaders have up front, this could be where this match is won or lost. Three weeks ago in Christchurch the Crusaders forward pack was totally dominant. At the three most contestable parts of the game - scrum, lineout and the breakdown - they controlled the game with ease.
The way the Crusaders have used their set piece to dominate opposition through the whole of Super Rugby has been impressive. The Crusaders, and particularly their forward pack, understand when the big moment arrives, whether it be a defensive lineout or scrum, they never stop challenging any team they play against.
How do I think this forward battle will play out?
My expectation is for the Crusaders to continue to dominate and if the Chiefs are to have any hope of winning this match they must find a way to even achieve parity.
There is a contrast between the midfields. The Crusaders are aggressive without being spectacular while the Chiefs are spectacular without being quite as aggressive. The halfbacks and wings could also be put in the same boat. That leaves the remaining point of difference being Israel Dagg at fullback for the Crusaders and probably Robbie Robinson for the Chiefs.
Any way you look at it, the team that gets momentum or front foot ball is going to be dangerous. But that danger will be manifested in different ways.
The Crusaders will be very clinical, will be accurate and will apply a great deal of pressure with their attacking systems and will kick with precision to build pressure.
If the Chiefs get front foot ball then their playmakers can create, and break you down, in a variety of ways.
Who has the ability to shut down the threats of the opposition?
The Crusaders have suffocated everybody. They have been pushed to the edge by many a side but have managed to survive. Their desperation at the tackle, their defence of their own line and their absolute toughness has on many occasions saved them from defeat. This is the Crusaders' legacy in action.
The Chiefs have been here before now. This is not new to them. The challenge the coaching staff and players now face is that they are having to do something they haven't achieved all season, and that is play 80 minutes of the highest quality football to win.
Last year they master-minded a historic and deserved result. If they manage to win this year against this Crusaders team then their reputation as a great side has merit. To go back-to-back in this competition is a pretty good effort.
In rugby nothing has changed in more than 100 years. To win the big games you have to win up front, and this game will be no different.
© ESPN Australia / New Zealand
The latest Week in Pictures takes in a fiery East Midlands derby and all the action from the Aviva Premiership and Top 14
The rolling maul is becoming an increasingly potent attacking weapon. Conor O'Shea looks at the difficulties of stopping it
The news of James Horwill, Adam Ashley-Cooper and Dan Carter's respective transfers will open the floodgates, writes Tom Hamilton