Crusaders close in on final four
June 23, 2011
The Crusaders' Sonny Bill Williams is set for his first taste of knock-out Super Rugby © Getty Images
The Crusaders will continue their odyssey of a Super Rugby season with a semi-final qualifier against the Sharks at Trafalgar Park in Nelson on Saturday.
The Christchurch-based side have been on the road since an earthquake hit the city and damaged their AMI Stadium back in February and have been forced to call Nelson, Timaru, Napier, Wellington and even Twickenham home this season. But neither their support nor form deserted them with the New Zealand Conference title secured last weekend with victory over the Hurricanes.
The Sharks booked their post-season package in more dramatic style by ending the Bulls' title defence in Pretoria to claim second spot in the South African Conference. But having vanquished the side that pipped them to the 2007 Super Rugby crown, they face another that has dominated them in the past. The Sharks have beaten the Crusaders only once in the last seven years and that 27-26 victory in 2007 came on home soil in Durban and courtesy of a runaway try from Odwa Ndungane and a sideline conversion in injury time.
The most recent meeting between the two sides was that high-profile clash at English rugby's HQ that saw the Crusaders hand out a rugby lesson on their way to a 44-28 victory. The hosts will be favourites once again as they continue their hunt for a eighth title but the Sharks have shown that they have what it takes to upset the odds away from home.
Crusaders - Player to Watch: Sonny Bill Williams makes a timely return to action at inside centre and will no doubt raise his game with the eyes of the rugby world watching.
Crusaders - Team News: The Crusaders welcome back both Williams and winger Sean Maitland from injury with the duo replacing Ryan Crotty and Brent Ward. Scrum-half Kahn Fotuali'i is also set for a return to action off the bench. In another change, Wyatt Crockett replaces Ben Franks at loose-head prop. Still sidelined by injury are Richie McCaw (foot), Israel Dagg (thigh) and Adam Whitelock (chest muscle).
Sharks - Player to Watch: Bismarck du Plessis once again gets the nod at hooker for a crunch clash ahead Springboks captain John Smit. Expect him to emphasise why he deserves the Boks' No.2 shirt for the Tri-Nations.
Sharks - Team News: The Sharks have made just one change to the starting XV from the side which faced the Bulls. Willem Alberts will start at No.8 in place of Ryan Kankowski. There are two changes to the bench with Eugene van Staden and Jacques Botes coming in for Wiehahn Herbst and Marcell Coetzee respectively.
Key Battle: Crusaders fly-half Dan Carter rarely fails to deliver when it matters and this game falls into that category. His ability to dictate proceedings may depend on the ability of his opposite number, former French international Frederic Michalak, to keep the Sharks on top.
Trivia: No South African side has won a Super Rugby play-off match in New Zealand.
Stats: These two sides have met 17 times on the Super Rugby stage with the Crusaders having won 13 of those encounters.
"The guys have got the bit between their teeth and we really want to take our set piece to the next level.'' - Crusaders coach Todd Blackadder issues a warning to the Sharks
"Frederic Michalak can control the game and we have Pat's kicking game at the back as well, so as long as we defend really well and our setpiece functions and we make sure that territory is in our favour, you never know." - Sharks coach John Plumtree is full of hope ahead of the clash
Prediction: Crusaders are very much at home playing knock-out rugby and bolstered by the return of some key names they should account for a Sharks side that will struggle to back up their showing against the Bulls.
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