Crunch time for the six Super Rugby contenders
July 16, 2013
Crunch time has arrived in Super Rugby, the play-offs that each of the 15 teams set as their season goal. Let's look into the prospects for the six teams aspiring to grand final glory on August 3.
Last year's champions, the Chiefs, have done superbly well to secure home-field advantage. By no means as dominant in the early stages of this competition, like any good side they have found ways to win. They have found the formula for success and it is no mean feat they have given themselves every opportunity to go back to back.
Liam Messam is the driving force behind the Chiefs' success © Getty Images
Strengths: Their biggest strength is their coaching staff and senior players that drive their team. Still short on international experience, they rely very heavily on the intellectual property sitting in the stands. Their tactical preparation is second to none and the clarity and execution of those game plans is their recipe for success.
Weaknesses: Their challenge is to produce a complete 80-minute performance. Inconsistent throughout, not only their season but during their games, they will need to find better accuracy in their performances if they are to repeat.
Key man: Liam Messam has proved to be the glue in this forward pack. His 111 caps and leadership could well be the defining performance in their play-offs campaign.
Title contenders? 50-50.
The Bulls are the South African constant. No team in Super Rugby understands the way that they play like these guys. A physical forward pack, a metronome at fly-half and with the asset that is Loftus Versfeld, the Bulls have re-established themselves as title contenders.
Strengths: There's a unique pressure playing in Pretoria. A passionate fan base, the expectant physical nature of the game and the natural element of altitude pose significant challenges for anybody heading there. The Bulls now face a couple of significant challenges. It doesn't matter who the Bulls face in their semi-final, they will never change the way they play. The difficulty they will have is that the teams they could face are each significantly different.
Weaknesses: The loss to the Stormers in the final round could end up being very significant. The prospect of travelling to New Zealand will certainly damage their chances of winning the competition.
Key man: Without a doubt Morne Steyn has been the catalyst for their success for a number of years. If they give him plenty of opportunities to score points, they will probably win.
Title contenders? At home yes, away from home, no.
Morne Steyn is capable of piling on the points © Getty Images
Jake White has taken the Brumbies to the next level. He has built strongly on a foundation set in 2012 and has established a toughness and belief in his systems that gives them an opportunity to reconnect with former glories.
Ben Mowen's consistent form saw him earn a Wallabies call-up this season © Getty Images
Strengths: A tough and relentless defence and an accurate and disciplined kicking game enables this team to wear even the best of sides down. But once again their hopes are very much connected to home-field advantage.
Weaknesses: Canberra has become an extremely difficult place to play and do they have the real quality to travel abroad and create what some would see as a real upset? I can imagine them doing more than enough to contain the Cheetahs and earn a place in the semi-finals, but I question their ability to win in South Africa. The Australian Conference has been compromised by the Lions' series and with players having limited time with their teams ahead of the play-offs, momentum will be difficult to regain.
Key men: Ben Mowen and George Smith have been the inspiration in this forward pack for the entire season. They are tireless defenders, accurate ball runners and damaging at the breakdown. If they are to find a road to success, these individuals will carry them there.
Title contenders? Surprise package.
No team goes into this stage of the season better equipped than the Crusaders, who have been here in each of the past 12 seasons. The Crusaders have peaked for the play-offs and their All Blacks have started to come into their own. They've gained confidence out of the June internationals and are determined to prove - once again - they are not quite ready to end their status as serious contenders.
Dan Carter has returned to his vintage best for the Crusaders © Getty Images
Strengths: With key players and, more importantly, key players in key positions playing with authority, they are the most versatile team entering these play-offs. They are a side with a rock-solid defence, a counter-attacking prowess and a penchant for the big moments. If there is a team in this competition that can win on the road, particularly in Hamilton, this is the side.
Weaknesses: At this stage of the season it is hard to see any weakness in their side.
Key Man: Their key player is, of course, Dan Carter. In recent times he has regained his vintage form and if he can continue his momentum, the Crusaders could ride that to victory.
Title contenders? Favourites.
The Reds have snuck under everybody's radar. Two years ago they were simply the best team in Super Rugby; playing with confidence, clarity and an intensity other teams struggled to match. In 2013 they have been inconsistent but have managed to give themselves an unlikely shot at winning a very difficult competition.
Will Genia has been a handful for opposition sides all season © Getty Images
Strengths: A team laden with talent and coached very well, it's whether they can find their attacking mojo to give themselves any chance. The Reds have some real quality across their team - in some positions world-class players - but their first hurdle may be too great.
Weaknesses: The performance of Quade Cooper is paramount to them having any success in this game. It may not define just the Reds' season, but also his Wallabies selection.
Key man: There's no doubting the brilliance of Will Genia, but will that be enough to beat the Crusaders in Christchurch? If the Reds managed to pull off what no-one else has done at AMI Stadium this weekend, who's to say they couldn't go all the way?
Title contenders? Quade?
The Cheetahs have been a fairytale story - the South African side that doesn't play South African rugby. The perennial entertainers have been worthy of making the play-offs for the very first time. The Cheetahs are prepared to chance their arm but still maintain that physical presence and it is reward to both the team and coach Naka Drotske for keeping faith in their systems.
Adriaan Strauss has proven to be an inspirational leader © Getty Images
Strengths: It would be a surprise to see them advance any further in these play-offs, given their lack of experience at the business end, however one thing can be assured: they are going to have a real crack. If the Brumbies don't respect the Cheetahs this weekend this could result in a massive upset.
Weaknesses: If the Cheetahs were to win Super Rugby's greatest prize it would have to be done three weeks away from home and that, I believe, is too great a hurdle.
Key man: Adriaan Strauss has become something of a cult figure in South Africa and his passion and leadership should never be under-estimated.
Title contenders? In all likelihood, a bridge too far.
© ESPN Australia / New Zealand
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