Super Rugby semi-finals preview
July 25, 2013
Where once there were six, now we're left with four: the table-topping Chiefs and second-placed Bulls have enjoyed their week off, and now begin their finals series campaigns in earnest against the Crusaders and Brumbies respectively; if the qualifying finals last week were the lead-in, now Super Rugby is getting serious.
Saturday, July 27
Dan Carter will have a major say on the game in Hamilton © Getty Images
19:35 local, 07:35 GMT, 17:35 EST
Head to Head: Played 22; Chiefs 7, Crusaders 15
In Hamilton: Played 10; Chiefs 4, Crusaders 6
In Finals: Played 1; Chiefs 1, Crusaders 0
Last clash: Round 19, 2013 - Crusaders 43 - 15 Chiefs, at AMI Stadium, Christchurch
Last Finals clash: Semi-final, 2012 - Chiefs 20 - 17 Crusaders, at Waikato Stadium, Hamilton
Preview: I've previously written that I can see the Super Rugby champions for 2013 coming from this semi-final, well before it became a likely occurrence, and I still hold that belief. This game really could be the match of the year, pitting the Super Rugby minor premiers against the form team of the competition.
These two teams met in the 2012 semi-finals, too, but the form lines were reversed, with the Chiefs the standout team in the competition and the Crusaders finding their way. That semi was a typically tough affair, but the Chiefs were probably always going to prevail. This time around, the Chiefs are playing very effectively if not quite to the breath-taking level of the Crusaders.
The Chiefs' ability to rebound from the five tries-to-two belting they took in Christchurch only three weeks ago is another key factor to consider; also whether the Crusaders, under the biggest pressure of the year, can continue their recent clinical dismantling of opponents.
Key battles: There's two for mine: one fairly obvious, the other, perhaps not as obvious, but just as crucial.
Aaron Cruden and Dan Carter produced glimpses three weeks ago of what should've been a cracking showdown, the display from Carter and the Crusaders that night completely overshadowed what was still a very good game from Cruden. Regardless, it remains fitting that the biggest Super Rugby game in New Zealand this year seems likely to be decided by the long-reigning All Blacks No.10 and his heir apparent.
What will be interesting is whether either player will change too much in their game. Cruden has been pulling the strings for the Chiefs making clever use of inside runners in traffic, while Carter has been playing a very wide game with the Crusaders - making more use of outside backs, and targeting the midfielders within opposition defensive lines.
Aaron Cruden was key in the Chiefs win in Super Rugby round 15 © Getty Images
The other major battle, in my opinion, is between Sam Whitelock and Brodie Retallick at lock. The All Blacks second-row pairing have been pushing each other all season, to the point that Whitelock only pipped Retallick for the No.5 jersey in our Team of the Season released on Wednesday.
While Retallick is the brute force around the field, and particularly at scrum time, Whitelock has proved time and time again that he's no slouch in either department - something to which Queensland Reds can attest from last weekend. But he also controls the Crusaders' lineout superbly. Whitelock, for mine, is one of the best locks in world rugby right now, and I have no doubt that he and Retallick will become All Blacks greats together. Whoever wins the set-piece battle will go a long way to deciding who plays in the final and who watches on TV.
Players to watch: Gareth Anscombe, Cruden, Tawera Kerr-Barlow, Retallick, Ben Tameifuna for the Chiefs; Tom Marshall, Carter, Kieran Read, the Whitelocks, Corey Flynn, for the Crusaders.
Tip: It seems almost ridiculous to suggest the team who led the New Zealand conference all year, and the Super Rugby Table for good chunks of the season as well, can be overlooked; but after watching the Crusaders' comprehensive dismantling of the Reds in the qualifying final at AMI Stadium in Christchurch, it's very hard to see anyone stopping this huge wave of momentum the men from Christchurch are currently riding.
It will be a ding-dong battle however it plays out, and I'm expecting a close one.
Crusaders by 5.
Duncan McRae and Matt Dunning preview the Super Rugby semi-finals
Follow live text commentary of the Super Rugby semi-final between the Chiefs and the Crusaders on Saturday, July 27, from 7pm (NZT), 5pm (EST), 7am (GMT)
17:05 local, 15:05 GMT, 01:05 EST +1d
Ben Mowen will lead the Brumbies into battle against the Bulls © Getty Images
Head to Head: Played 15; Bulls 6, Brumbies 9
In Pretoria: Played 7; Bulls 4, Brumbies 3
In Finals: First meeting between these teams in finals
Last clash: Round 7, 2013 - Brumbies 23 - 20 Bulls, at Canberra Stadium, Canberra
Preview: Everything being written and said about this clash points to a Bulls win, and it's pretty hard to argue with this logic given the altitude factor and the fact the Bulls have maintained an unbeaten run at Loftus this season. But the Bulls' evident advantage goes beyond that; they lost only one game in South Africa in 2013, to the Stormers in the final round of the regular season, having previously won nine games on the trot, dating back to their return from their Australasian tour in mid-April.
The train of thought coming into the finals series - echoed by Jeff Wilson last week - was that the Bulls could become champions if playing at home, but would struggle on the road. Certainly their record this season backs that theory.
The Brumbies come into their first semi-final since beating the Chiefs on the way to their 2004 title buoyed by the fact they beat the Bulls in round seven and pushed them to the limit in Pretoria in 2012. The fact they haven't won in Pretoria since 2006 isn't weighing them down, and two survivors from that win, Clyde Rathbone and George Smith, will again be front and centre as the Brumbies maintain the line-up that accounted for the Cheetahs in the Super Rugby qualifier in Canberra.
The Bulls have shown a liking for throwing the ball around this year, but they do tend to play tight against the top sides: the Bulls scored more than two tries against only the Cheetahs in Bloemfontein among the top six sides this year; when the going gets tough, the Bulls get tight. In that regard, the Brumbies may be best served by winning the initial breakdown exchanges and going wide, in the hope of posting an early lead. They certainly have the talent to cut a team open, but we haven't seen a lot of it lately.
Look for Jesse Mogg's kicking game to play a major role, with the altitude sure to add metres to an already impressive punt. By the same token, look for Morne Steyn's boot to punish any ill-discipline from the Brumbies. And don't underestimate the "Jake White Effect" in Pretoria.
Bulls captain Dewald Potgieter must have a big game at the breakdown if the hosts are to win © Getty Images
Key battle: Set-piece, without doubt. The Brumbies had the measure of the Bulls earlier this year, and they will almost certainly be targeting this area again. Against the Cheetahs last week, the Brumbies' front-row quickly established scrum dominance and were able to use this as a weapon, with Ben Mowen twice controlling the ball at the back of the scrum to win kickable penalties.
In the lineout, Mowen (No.1) and Juandre Kruger (No.3) finished the regular season atop the lineout takes tally, but the Bulls are at a disadvantage with Kruger out for the season - an absence the Stormers exploited in the final round of the home-and-away season. Bulls coach Frans Ludeke said through the week that his set-piece had to improve, but you can be assured that the Brumbies, after losing three lineouts on their own throw against the Cheetahs, will be working hard in this area, too.
Whoever wins the set-piece battle goes a long way to winning the game, in my humble opinion.
Players to watch: Zane Kirchner, Jan Serfontein, Steyn, Flip van der Merve, Chilliboy Rallepele for the Bulls. Mogg, Christian Lealiifano, Nic White, Mowen, Scott Sio for the Brumbies.
Tip: Ignoring the fact this is the Australian and New Zealand branch of an international rugby site, and my editor would obviously like nothing more than a trans-Tasman final next Saturday, the Brumbies can certainly win despite almost every logical reason that says they can't. They've spent the week in Johannesburg preparing and acclimatising, and their discipline in their own half has improved since before the June International window; but it obviously needs to be squeaky clean with Steyn laying in wait.
I'm not saying those doomed words about nasally detecting a surprise victory again …
Brumbies by 3.
Follow live text commentary of the Super Rugby semi-final between the Bulls and the Brumbies on Saturday, July 27, from 5pm (RSA), 3pm (GMT), 3am (June 28, NZT), 1am (June 28, EST)
© ESPN Australia / New Zealand
Following the passing of Jack Kyle, Huw Richards pays tribute to arguably the finest player Ireland has produced
"When Mike Burton was sent off I thought the world had gone crazy - just Pommy bashing, hitting anyone." Behind the Rose heads back to 1975
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