Quartet eye Super Rugby semi-finals
July 19, 2012
Can Israel Dagg and the Crusaders remain on course for the Super Rugby final with victory over the Bulls? © Getty Images
The battle for Super Rugby glory resumes on Saturday with the Crusaders playing host to the Bulls and the Reds entertaining the Sharks with all four sides eyeing a place in the semi-finals.
Super Rugby Finals Series
First up is the Crusaders' clash with the Bulls at the ANZ Stadium in Christchurch where the visitors will be hoping for a repeat of their 32-30 victory in the regular season that was marred by eye-gouging accusations. That hard-won victory was secured at the fortress that is their Loftus Versfeld home at altitude in Pretoria with this latest match-up of Super Rugby's two most successful sides taking place on Kiwi soil thanks to the Crusaders' superior record and ranking.
Crusaders coach Todd Blackadder has made a few changes to the side that closed out the regular season with victory over the Western Force last weekend. Kieran Read is still out with injury, which means Richie McCaw will once again lead the side from No.8 with Matt Todd slotting in at openside flanker, while Sam Whitelock and Wyatt Crockett have been reinstated to the starting line-up in the forward pack. In the backs, centre Robbie Fruean returns, pushing Adam Whitelock to the wing and Sean Maitland to the bench.
The Bulls, who battled past the Lions to book their place in the play-offs, have made just one chance to their line-up. Lock Flip van der Merwe is back after missing the Lions game with a hip injury, with Wilhelm Steenkamp dropping down to the bench and CJ Stander making way.
The Crusaders enter game as favourites, with the fly-half duel between Dan Carter and Morne Steyn another fascinating aspect, but Blackadder is taking nothing for granted. "He [Steyn] is such a key to their go forward but the way that they play their game," said Blackadder, "he's very much a pocket 10. He can kick goals from anywhere, he's very well disciplined. So it's going to be a great battle between him and DC. It always is."
Bulls coach Frans Ludeke insists the formbook goes out the window at this stage of the season. There isn't one team that has an edge on another and it will all come down to which team handles the pressure the best," he said. "This is finals rugby, and we know how to handle the pressure. We are playing away but we know this is a once-off game and we know what we have to do."
The winner of the game will meet either the Chiefs or Stormers next week, depending on the result of the other play-off game between the defending champions the Reds and the Sharks in Brisbane. The Sharks won their regular-season fixture, coming back from 17 points down late in the first half, but like the Bulls, they had home advantage on that occasion.
The Reds will be without first-choice fly-half Quade Cooper who was handed a one-match ban earlier this week for a dangerous tackle on the Waratahs' Berrick Barnes during their encounter at the Suncorp Stadium. But Ewen McKenzie's side are used to operating without Cooper with the Wallabies No.10 having only recently returned from knee surgery. The Reds are set to hand the reins to Ben Lucas in Cooper's enforced absence.
The Sharks have also lost the services of fullback Patrick Lambie to a recurrence of an ankle injury and will be replaced by Louis Ludik while centre Francois Steyn will also miss out having been deemed ineligible for the play-offs due to the fact he re-signed with the Sharks after the transfer deadline.
Sharks coach John Plumtree has bolstered his front row Springbok duo Tendai Mtawarira, who missed the Sharks' final round win over the Cheetahs with a stomach upset, and Bismarck du Plessis, who is promoted from the replacements. Tim Whitehead and Paul Jordaan resume their midfield partnership while Willem Alberts gets the nod at lock.
"We have to make sure we understand that a lot has happened since we beat the Reds (27-22) in the fourth round in Durban," stressed Plumtree. "That game was a long time ago, they're a lot better now than they were then, but I think we are as well.
"This is a huge game. There's home ground advantage for the Reds which is a big factor. They play very well at home and we have to make sure that we play to our own game plan, and that we play with confidence and really take it to them. We don't want to be chasing them all day."
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
"Cheika's been phenomenal. He gives you an incredible level of mental strength." Tom Hamilton talks to Waratahs star Jacques Potgieter
While the Super Rugby season enters the all-important knockout phase, elsewhere pre-season training never looked so enjoyable. We round-up the best snaps in our Week in Pictures
"Our scrums and lineouts are sometimes not that good but our men are very brave." Ken Borland finds that rugby is on the rise in Senegal
Laurie Fisher talks about the Brumbies and Gloucester, and provides revealing thoughts on the player involvement during the glory days in Canberra