Super Rugby preview: semi-finals
Greg Growden and Brittany Mitchell
July 24, 2014
Greg Growden and Russell Barwick preview the Super Rugby semi-finals
Saturday, July 26
19:35 local, 07:35 GMT, 17:35 EST, 17:05 CST, 15:35 WST
Head to Head: Played 20; Crusaders 14, Sharks 5, Drawn 1
In Christchurch: Played 11; Crusaders 10, Sharks 1
Last Played: Round 14, 2014 - Crusaders 25-30 Sharks, AMI Stadium, Christchurch
Dan Carter rejuvenated, ready to fire%]
Preview: The Sharks have won the past two head-to-heads, claiming their first win in Christchurch this season, after the Crusaders had won the previous five clashes. But the Crusaders' home-ground advantage and wealth of finals experience is a massive advantage in this match.
Taking the field for their 12th consecutive Super Rugby finals campaign, the Crusaders will be full of confidence and ready to take on the Sharks despite their round-14 loss. With a week off to rest and ensure injured players have enough time to recuperate for a start, the Crusaders will also be bolstered by the return of Richie McCaw alongside Kieran Read and Dan Carter. The fact that world-class players McCaw and Carter are likely to play out of position demonstrates the strength of the Crusaders squad.
With the strongest scrum heading into the semi-finals, with an 88% success rate, and with one of the strongest lineouts of the season, enjoying 89% success rate, the Crusaders will be huge at the set-piece; they will look to prove themselves up front early before using their strong back line featuring Colin Slade, Carter and Nemani Nondolo. Crushing the Highlanders in the last regular round of the season, the Crusaders were able to crash over for four tries, run 489 metres with the ball despite limited possession, and turn the ball over a massive 20 times to demonstrate their impressive strength and discipline at the breakdown. But the Crusaders must stick to their own game plan, and avoid being drawn into the Sharks kicking game, as they were in round 14, in order to reach the final.
Thomas du Toit has proven a rising star in replacing Tendai Mtawarira © Getty Images
The Sharks were resilient in fighting their way into the semi-finals after losing their early lead against the Highlanders last week. They went into that game with an average of only 1.9 tries per game throughout the season, but they turned their stats around in crashing over for three tries as they maintained possession and beat a huge 26 defenders, while maintaining their average penalty kicking stats in converting 80% of their attempts. Changing their much-maligned kicking game plan, the Sharks kept ball in hand and claimed 68% of possession as they ran for a huge 423 metres. With Pat Lambie likely to play a bigger role this week, the Sharks are sure to be even stronger in attack.
Up front, the Sharks demolished the Highlanders scrum: they won eight on their own feed and stole three of the Highlanders', while also pushing over for a try and gaining metres and penalties through their strong rolling mauls. Their lineouts were also as strong as they won all 12 of their own and two of the Highlanders, but their defence was less than its best, easily cut apart in broken play when the Highlanders counter-attacked; the Highlanders went 80 metres to crash over for a try after the half-time siren. The Sharks' set-piece was at its finest in Durban but they need to be just as strong or even better while tackling the Crusaders, who are one of the best at the set-piece. And despite their strength with ball in hand against the Highlanders, the Sharks are likely to redeploy their kicking game in order to dig in and attempt to drag the Crusaders out of their own preferred game plan.
Greg Growden's verdict: Even though they were more adventurous than usual, the dominance of the Sharks' pack led to them finishing ahead of the Highlanders in last weekend's elimination final. The Crusaders will hold up far better at the set-piece, and will be far more penetrative at scrum and lineout time than the Highlanders, and that should have the desired effect of numbing the Sharks. Also the Crusaders' big names are all returning at the right time.
Tips: Greg Growden: Crusaders by 8 Brittany Mitchell: Crusaders by 7 Brett McKay: Crusaders by 7.
Dan Carter has delivered masterclasses in the art of the second five-eighth © Getty Images
One slip-up will cost Tahs: Cheika%]
19:30 local, 09:30 GMT, 19:30 EST, 19:00 CST, 17:30 WST
Head to Head: Played 24; Waratahs 13, Brumbies 11
In Sydney: Played 13; Waratahs 11, Brumbies 2
Last Played: Round 17, 2014 - Waratahs 39-8 Brumbies, ANZ Stadium, Sydney
Preview: One of Australia's biggest rivalries will play out in a semi-final for the first time since 2002, when the Brumbies hammered the Waratahs 51-10, but don't expect to see a similar result this year. But do expect to see fireworks with 22 of the 32-man Wallabies squad taking the field.
The Waratahs will be brimming with confidence when they take the field to face off against the Brumbies, having had a week off to rest and nail out any problems as they look to continue their franchise-record seven-match winning streak and move into the grand final after claiming their first minor premiership. With Israel Folau, Rob Horne and Jacques Potgieter returning to the starting line-up, the Waratahs will be at full strength when they take to the field. The Waratahs are unbeaten at home this season, but their lack of finals experience could hinder them against a side that experienced the importance of finals rugby last year.
Wycliff Palu is key for the Waratahs, getting them on the front foot © Getty Images
The Waratahs have shown this season they are a complete team: they scored more points than any other side with their exciting game plan that utilises strength up front to bulldoze through defenders and skills out wide to break the line and crash over; they also had the best defensive line, conceding fewer points per game than any other team. The Tahs like to keep the ball in hand and back themselves from around the park, and they have topped the stats in carries, metres, clean breaks, offloads and passes. But their pack, so dominant around the field, has struggled with their lineout since the loss of their captain, Dave Dennis, in round 17. With a lineout success of only 83% throughout the season, the Waratahs were torn apart when they faced Queensland Reds in the last regular round - ending the match with only a 57% success rate. They are sure to have worked rigorously on their lineout over the past two weeks, but still the Brumbies, so impressive in the set-piece against the Chiefs last week, are sure to pinpoint it and look to dominate.
The Brumbies played some of their best rugby of the season when taking control of their qualifying final against the Chiefs early last week. Running in three tries in 20 minutes, the Brumbies were streaks ahead of the Chiefs and were proving to be too good for the back-to-back champions. Strong up front, the Brumbies put the Chiefs under pressure early and punished the New Zealand side throughout the opening 20 minutes.
Ruck'n Maul: Brumbies finding their range%]
The Brumbies were amazing with ball in hand, beating a huge 35 defenders; backline whiz Henry Speight beat 12 defenders on his own and ran for a whopping 151 metres despite his 10-minute stint in the bin. With Matt Toomua, Nic White and Speight working so well together, the Waratahs will have plenty on their hands. And while the Brumbies' scrum showed little signs of improvement, having no put-ins and unable to win any of the Chiefs', their lineout was faultless as they won all 14 of their throws and stole one from the Chiefs.
Poor goal kicking and a loss of concentration either side of the half came close to costing the side a semi-final place. With a goal kicking percentage of 63% throughout the season, dropping to 62.5% last weekend, the Brumbies must improve their goal kicking significantly and play the full 80-minutes if they hope to keep the Waratahs down.
Scott Sio says the Waratahs are the team to beat%]
Greg Growden's verdict: A capacity crowd. Two teams bound to be aggressive and adventurous. Enormous rivalries, even deep animosity in some head-to-head battles. This match will certainly have an edge, and all the signs point to it being a season highlight. The Waratahs have been the 2014 trendsetters, but the Brumbies are not that far behind. Ignore the last Waratahs blowout win a few weeks ago. This will be much closer. The result could revolve around who wins the Phipps-Foley versus White-Toomua tag-team tussle in the halves. South African referee Jaco Peyper is also bound to be a factor. He can bewilder.
Tips: Greg Grodwen: Waratahs by 2 Brittany Mitchell: Waratahs by 3 Brett McKay: Waratahs by 10 although the heart says Brumbies by 5.
Ben Mowen and the Brumbies were hugely impressive against the Chiefs © Getty Images
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd
The latest Week in Pictures takes in a fiery East Midlands derby and all the action from the Aviva Premiership and Top 14
The rolling maul is becoming an increasingly potent attacking weapon. Conor O'Shea looks at the difficulties of stopping it
The news of James Horwill, Adam Ashley-Cooper and Dan Carter's respective transfers will open the floodgates, writes Tom Hamilton