Super Rugby semi-final qualifiers preview
July 18, 2013
The Super Rugby play-offs kick off this weekend, and there's a nice symmetry about the finals series this year with New Zealand, South Africa, and Australia all providing two teams in the top six. The final standings saw the Chiefs top with 66 points, followed by the Bulls on 63 and the Brumbies on 60, as the three conference winners. The Chiefs and Bulls earned the first week of the finals off. The wildcard spots were taken by the Crusaders on 60 points, Queensland Reds on 5, and the Cheetahs making their maiden finals appearance on 54 points.
19:35 local, 07:35 GMT, 17:35 EST, 17:05 CST, 15:35 WST
Dan Carter is in something like career-best form © Getty Images
Head to Head: Played 19; Crusaders 13, Reds 6
In Christchurch: Played 7; Crusaders 6, Reds 1 (* Crusaders 1-0 at this new venue)
In finals: : Played 2; Crusaders 1, Reds 1
Last clash: Round 11, 2012 - Crusaders 15-11 Brisbane, at AMI Stadium, Christchurch
Last finals clash: Final, 2011 - Reds 18-13 Crusaders, at Suncorp Stadium, Brisbane
Preview: This shapes as a mouth-watering clash between the most successful Australian team in recent seasons and the most successful side in Super Rugby history. The Reds' success against New Zealand teams this year (they're unbeaten in 2013) played a major role in Ewen McKenzie securing the Wallabies coaching job, while his overall record against the Crusader stands at three wins from four attempts. The Crusaders, on the other hand, are arguably the form side of the competition coming into the finals, and they are unbeaten at their Christchurch fortress in 2013.
Key battle: The backrow battle might be worth the price of admission alone, but it's very hard to go past the two major players wearing No.10.
Dan Carter's form in the past month or so has been nothing short of spectacular: he's made two of the three Teams of the Week since the June international window, and he was a Notable Mention the week he missed out. His defence, kicking and distribution has been its usual high standard, but now he's running a whole lot more than in the earlier rounds, providing extra spark for the Crusaders and a new point of concern for opposing defenders. If this isn't the best he's played in recent years, it can't be far off.
Quade Cooper's omission from the British & Irish Lions series probably had more to do with personal differences than playing ability or form, and he remains the lynchpin for Queensland Reds. His performance against New South Wales Waratahs - and the critique of his performance - last Saturday night was stereotypical: pilloried in some quarters for trying too hard, praised in others for laying on opportunity after opportunity. We were in the latter group, with Cooper a Notable Mention in the Round 20 Team of the Week. Interestingly, McKenzie had the game plan to all but beat the Crusaders in Christchurch last year, when Cooper wasn't playing. How much tweaking is required now that he is?
Players to watch: Cooper, Will Genia, Ed Quirk, Jake Schatz for the Reds. Carter, Israel Dagg, Tom Taylor, Kieran Read, Sam Whitelock for the Crusaders. Perhaps even a promising young flanker named McCaw from the bench.
Tip: The Reds want to send Ewen McKenzie off to the Wallabies with another title, but I think the Crusaders' form since the resumption is too good to ignore, to the point that they were still a class above even when they had an off night against the Hurricanes last week. Quality and class throughout the list, and they're playing just about the perfect game at the moment. Home-ground advantage is a massive plus as well, and they're too experienced as an organisation, to start getting nervous at this time of year.
Crusaders by 10.
Follow live text commentary of the Super Rugby qualifier between the Crusaders and the Reds on Saturday, July 20, from 7pm (NZT), 5pm (EST), 7am (GMT)
Greg Growden and Russell Barwick preview the Super Rugby finals
16:10 local, 06:10 GMT, 16:10 EST, 15:40 CST, 14:10 WST
Heinrich Brussow will give the Brumbies a battle at the breakdown © Getty Images
Head to Head: Played 7; Brumbies 5, Cheetahs 2
In Canberra: Played 4; Brumbies 4, Cheetahs 0
In finals: : First meeting between these teams In finals
Last clash: Round 3, 2012 - Brumbies 24-23 Cheetahs, at Canberra Stadium, Canberra
Preview: Just as in the first qualifying final, this game features teams who have not squared off in 2013. The last meeting between these sides resulted in a one-point win to the Brumbies, courtesy of a Christian Lealiifano penalty goal after the bell, and that victory was the first sign this new Canberra side was capable of wins not seen in the ACT for a number of years.
While the Brumbies have been pretty consistent in 2013, the Cheetahs have lived the very definition of a roller-coaster existence. Opening losses to both 2012 finalists were followed by five straight wins across the three countries, a run that announced to Super Rugby that something might be brewing in Bloemfontein. From there, they never won more than two in a row, though, and consecutive losses to the Bulls and Stormers on the international resumption only raised questions again. The hammering of the Blues in their final match of the hone-and-away season quelled some concerns, as we were reminded just how good an attacking side the Cheetahs are.
Key battle: The backrow, without a shadow of a doubt. The Cheetahs' major improvements as a team have come through a harder edge in defence, especially at the breakdown, and their backrow remained a well-performed unit even when they had their late-season scare; the old adage that forwards win matches and backs determine the margin looks to have found a new home.
Heinrich Brussow appears to be back to his best, after a few seasons plagued by injury and indifferent form. He is in many the closest South African rugby has to the genuine openside "fetcher" that Australian and New Zealand rugby knows and loves, but this season he's not alone. Brussow has been extremely effective on the ball chiefly because of the support provided by No.8 Phillip van der Walt and blindsider Lappies Labuschagne, who has also gone to new levels in 2013 and whose Springboks squad selection in June was entirely well deserved.
But the Brumbies are one of the hardest teams at the breakdown across the competition, even if they're also the most penalised team in the competition as a result. Blindsider Peter Kimlin, and No.8 Ben Mowen earned Wallabies squad selection for the series against the British & Irish Lions on their excellent form, and Mowen emerged from that series as one of the, if not the, most consistent of the Australian forwards.
And then there's the George Smith factor. A surprising in-season addition in 2013, Smith provides the Brumbies with genuine big-game experience and one of the very few remaining links to the Brumbies' glory years of the early 2000s. Smith will start for the Brumbies, and his team-mates have already declared they want to thank him for his service by sending him back to Suntory with another championship.
Players to watch: Jesse Mogg, Lealiifano, Mowen, Smith, Scott Fardy for the Brumbies. Willie "Spiders" le Roux, Robert Eborsohn, Labuschagne, Brussow, Adriaan Strauss for the Cheetahs.
Tip: The Brumbies won't play was badly as they did in Perth last week, and they will be better for the run with some guys coming back into Super Rugby mode after upwards of six weeks away on national duty. The Cheetahs are certainly one of the more dangerous attacking teams in the competition, yet they haven't scored as many tries in 2013 as have the Brumbies. And their defence isn't as strong either. Home-ground advantage should again prevail.
Brumbies by 8.
Follow live text commentary of the Super Rugby qualifier between the Brumbies and the Cheetahs on Sunday, July 21, from 5.45pm (NZT), 3.45pm (EST), 6.45am (GMT)
Make your ESPN FootyTips selections for the Super Rugby qualifers
Saturday, July 20
Sunday, July 21
Week 2 - July 26/27:
(2) Bulls v Highest-ranked winner from Week 1
Week 3 - August 3:
Super Rugby Table:
Super Rugby Conferences Tables:
© ESPN Australia / New Zealand
The time for tinkering is over - England must nail their colours to the mast in key positions, writes Phil Vickery
"New Zealand-born Joe Schmidt has forged the Irish into a street-smart, well- prepared side," John Mitchell on the Irish renaissance
"I am bored of hearing 'I can't fault the effort'. Let us take that for granted and look for some quality." John Taylor writes
Reports comparing the 2014 Wallabies with their rabble-like predecessors of 2005 are unfair and self-serving, Greg Growden reports