Super Rugby final preview
August 1, 2013
Greg Growden and Russell Barwick preview the decider
After 124 games of the regular season and two weekends of knockout rugby, the 2013 Super Rugby season will boil down to a battle between two of the three conference winners. The "three-legged spaceship" cup has been very comfortable in the Hamilton trophy cabinet over the past 12 months, but, as we speak, room is being prepared for it in Canberra.
The final is a sell-out with the last of the 25,000 tickets snapped up on Wednesday afternoon, including a group of around 30 enterprising Brumbies fans from Canberra who became Chiefs season ticket holders for 2014 in order to get priority access to tickets for the final.
Can the Chiefs go back-to-back? Will the Brumbies add a third title to their already proud history? Read on ...
Saturday, August 3
Chiefs v Brumbies, Waikato Stadium, Hamilton
Head to Head: Played 18; Chiefs 6, Brumbies 11, 1 draw
In Hamilton: Played 6; Chiefs 3, Brumbies 3
In finals: Played 1; Chiefs 0, Brumbies 1
Last clash: Round 4, 2012 - Chiefs 29-22 Brumbies, at Waikato Stadium, Hamilton
Last finals clash: Semi-final, 2004 - Brumbies 32-17 Chiefs, at Canberra Stadium, Canberra
Preview: There are so many things to get excited about; even if it isn't quite the final that just about everyone expected, it will be no less enthralling as a contest. Will the Chiefs' high-tempo game break the Brumbies' renowned defensive discipline? Will the Brumbies break the game open themselves with some of the best broken-play runners in the game?
Christian Leali'ifano has a key role to play for the Brumbies © Getty Images
The Chiefs jumped out of the blocks against the Crusaders in the first Super Rugby semi-final in Hamilton, and showed some definite intent, but they also provided many opportunities for the Crusaders to take first-half points. I'd expect the Chiefs to try this again against the Brumbies, but they will have to be super-disciplined with Christian Leali'ifano, the second higher points-scorer in 2013, on the field. Similarly, the Brumbies will want to post points early and hope their defence and breakdown pressure can force the Chiefs into errors as the hosts try to get back in the game.
Given the relative scrum parity (though the front-row battle will be a belter) and the lineout advantage the Brumbies seem to have, I'm expecting the visitors to play the territory/set-piece game that has served them so well this season: it's the hallmark of Jake White rugby, and the former Springboks coach has declared already there is no point in going away from what has taken to them to the final.
The Chiefs probably won't kick as much for the touchline, particularly if Hika Elliot is not completely healthy and endures the lineout throwing issues he suffered against the Crusaders. Aaron Cruden will again provide the attacking focus, though it was interesting to note how much time Gareth Anscombe spent at first receiver last week. Like the Brumbies, it's hard to see the Chiefs going away from the game that has served them so well.
Key battle: There's any number of battles that will play a major part in determining the Super Rugby champions for 2013, including but not limited to the breakdown, and especially Liam Messam and George Smith on the ground; the tight fives in the scrum; Craig Clarke v Ben Mowen in the lineouts; the back three; and even Tawera Kerr-Barlow v Nic White; however, one trumps them all.
Aaron Cruden v Matt Toomua.
The heir apparent to Dan Carter in the All Blacks' No.10 jersey was superb against the Crusaders in the semi-finals last weekend, probably even shading the master fly-half himself. Cruden's read on the play in the lead-up to his intercept try was crucial, and the try itself became a major turning point in a game in which the Chiefs were battling to find parity. The Chiefs lifted as a unit from the moment Cruden gathered the intercept and raced away, and they didn't let go of their chokehold until their second consecutive final appearance was secured. If Connacht-bound Clarke is the Chiefs' inspiration, Cruden is the spark that gets them going.
Aaron Cruden turned the game against the Crusaders with his intercept try © Getty Images
Toomua is becoming just as important to the Brumbies. Throughout this year, the one common denominator in all the Brumbies' key 'big game' wins has been a stirring performance from their young playmaker. His vision and creativity has gone to new levels in the second half of this season - something he admitted he'd noticed himself, in our chat before the finals - and there's no better example of that than the way he ghosted past a couple of lazy Bulls forwards before throwing the match-winning inside pass for Tevita Kuridrani in the second semi-final in Pretoria. Toomua will also play a key role in the Brumbies' defensive patterns, and you expect can see him repeating his very successful rush defence on Morne Steyn against Cruden in Hamilton.
But where Toomua plays the classical fly-half game, doing all of his work at first receiver, Cruden can sometimes pop up a lot wider in attack - even as far out as outside centre at times; this is sure to test the Brumbies' defensive resolve. Cruden also tends to play a touch wider in defence, and this becomes an opportunity for the Brumbies. If Cruden is defending in the 10 channel, then you can be sure Toomua will send some big boppers Cruden's way, even taking Cruden on himself. If Cruden defends wider, then Tevita Kuridrani becomes the targeted runner. Cruden is not adverse to making the big tackles, mind you; he peeled off several try-savers against the desperate Crusaders, including one that felled Ryan Crotty with the try line in touching distance.
Who will win the freshly minted Man of the Match medal in the Super Rugby final? © SANZAR (Alistair Hogg)
Players to watch: In a decider, every player on the park is going to play their part and they must be watched equally. It's easy to say keep an eye on Aaron Cruden and Matt Toomua, or Ben Tameifuna and Scott Sio, or Brodie Retallick and Scott Fardy, but that's underselling the other 12 players on either side. If all your focus is on Andrew Horrell, then Charlie Ngatai will carve you up; if you wrap up Jesse Mogg, you still have to deal with Henry Speight. The reality is they all have to be watched for the entire game. So watch the coaches. The coach who pulls the right rein in terms of game plan, and how he manages his bench options throughout the game, will be the one holding the cup at midnight.
For the stats hounds: How about these pearls of statistical wisdom, courtesy of SANZAR, for those trying to find a winner in the numbers:
in all games this year (including finals) the Brumbies have scored the most first-half points (247), with the Chiefs third on 228; the Crusaders scored the most second-half points (272) ahead of the Chiefs (250), with the Brumbies fourth with 224 points;
interestingly, the Chiefs have conceded 172 second-half points, with the Brumbies conceding 194 points after the break - both teams ranking mid-table in the competition;
the Chiefs' average score this season has been a 28-23 win, three tries to two. On average, at half-time this year, the Chiefs have taken a 13-12 lead into the sheds;
the Brumbies' average score this season has been a 26-18 win, also three tries to two, while they fare slightly better with a 14-8 lead at half-time.
Can you find a winner in all that? Nah, me neither…
Tip: Confidence in both camps will be sky-high, coming into the decider on the back of mind-blowingly impressive wins against highly credentialed semi-final opponents. The bookies laughed all the way to the bank when the Bulls-Crusaders decider vanished, such were the expectations among punters and pundits.
The Chiefs have a great chance of becoming only the fourth back-to-back champions in the 17-year history of Super Rugby, after the Blues (1996-1997), Crusaders (1998-2000 and 2004-2005) and the Bulls (2009-2010), and certainly the value of home ground advantage and the week-long build-up in Hamilton cannot be underestimated.
This game might also represent the last chance for this current Chiefs squad to claim a title, too, with upwards of half-a-dozen players already heading overseas next season, including Clarke, Lelia Masaga and the injured Richard Kahui.
But the Brumbies will be undaunted by having to play away from home; under Jake White, the Brumbies have lost only once in New Zealand - which was coincidently their previous clash in Hamilton, where a late Chiefs try stole a win from what was shaping as a well-fought draw. And if they can win a play-off match in Pretoria, arguably the most hostile of away venues in Super Rugby, then they can surely win in Hamilton.
All that said though, it's been near impossible for this Canberra-based scribe to remain impartial all week, so I'm not going to attempt to.
Brumbies by one will do it, but enjoy the final regardless ...
Follow live text commentary of the Super Rugby Final between the Chiefs and the Brumbies on Saturday, August 3, from 7pm (NZT), 5pm (EST), 7am (GMT)
Will Ben Mowen and Jake White be celebrating in Hamilton? © Getty Images
© ESPN Australia / New Zealand
"At the crux of this England team is a lack of fear, they are not afraid to throw playbooks out of the window." Tom Hamilton reports from Twickenham
"These little deft touches, the nuances O'Driscoll has perfected are what Ireland will miss most." Tom Hamilton on Brian O'Driscoll's final Test in Dublin
After Brian O'Driscoll's emotional final Ireland appearance on home soil, and seeing the Six Nations boil down to a three-horse race, we bring you the Weekend in Pictures
Last year's thrashing at the hands of Wales was not the first time England have fallen to their rivals. Scrum Sevens looks at whether they have bounced back the following year