SA participation set to be cut
Last week the prognosis was good for South African rugby, with three teams tipped to make it into the Super Rugby Finals Series, but the prospects are far less bright now that the first round of knockout games has arrived.
The Sharks have a definite chance of proving otherwise, but the smart money should be on the South African interest in the destination of the Super Rugby title being cut from three teams to just one by the end of Saturday’s knockout fixtures.
Of the two teams who won through into the Super Rugby Finals Series by finishing in positions five and six, it is the Bulls who have by far the toughest task. No South African team has won in Christchurch against the Crusaders in more than a decade, and there is reason for that.
The Bulls though can be encouraged by the knowledge that the Crusaders generally boasted a sound record in their home city when the games were played at their former home at Jade Stadium, formerly Lancaster Park. It wasn’t just South African sides that struggled there, it was all teams.
The move across town to their new home after last year’s earthquake made Jade Stadium unsafe has been a relatively recent one, and already they have lost there. And that defeat happened just a few weeks ago, with the Hurricanes doing the trick in a nailbiter. The Cheetahs, when they played the Crusaders there in March, were also way more competitive than everyone expected them to be, and the scores were level until the Crusaders won it with a late try.
The Bulls would have noted that and no doubt they would have used that in their motivation this week. Are the Crusaders as invincible as they used to be? Probably not, and in addition to the defeat by the Hurricanes, they were also beaten by the Rebels in Melbourne a few months back. The Bulls, lest it not be forgotten, smashed them at Loftus on Easter Saturday.
But the Crusaders were well short of full strength that day, and it was during a period of the season when they were struggling. They don’t have the services of Kieran Read on Saturday, but otherwise they are much closer to full strength than they were in April, and but for the blip against the Hurricanes, they have enjoyed impressive momentum in the second half of the league phase of the season.
With the Reds it is a similar story. Indeed, both the Sharks and the Bulls are in the same position in the sense that they have both beaten their playoff opponents in league play this year. And neither venue is a fortress in the sense that the hosts have lost their this season -- the Reds’ most recent defeat in Brisbane was in fact to the other South African side still in the knockouts, the Stormers.
The Stormers will be the Sharks’ opponents if they win against the Reds and the Bulls lose to the Crusaders. Their chances of booking a flight to Cape Town were strengthened considerably when Quade Cooper was suspended for a dangerous tackle in last week’s win over the Waratahs.
But the Sharks have definitely not been helped by the non-availability of Frans Steyn, whose presence has been of enormous psychological value to the team since the end of the international window. On top of that Patrick Lambie had to stay behind in Durban because of injury, which effectively means the Sharks are without two of their three big game backline players (JP Pietersen being the other).
The Reds are always a tough team to play against at home, and apart from a 50 point victory over them a couple of years ago, the Sharks don’t boast a good record in Brisbane. In fact, they don’t boast a good record against Australian teams generally. So while they go into the match with a definite chance, if you have to bet on a winner, the Reds’ home-ground advantage gives them the edge.
- Weekend’s Teams
- Working the Blindside - video preview
PREVIEWS AND PREDICTIONS (all times CAT, SA, GMT+2)
CRUSADERS v VODACOM BULLS (Christchurch, Saturday 9:35am)
Of the last five matches played between these teams, the Bulls have won four and the Crusaders just one. That suggests history favours the Bulls, as it does when you look at the record of the two teams when they play each other in knockout fixtures -- the Bulls have won three semifinals against the Crusaders and the Crusaders just one. But you need to take a closer look at those figures, for they tell a story. All the matches won by the Bulls have been at Loftus, all the matches won by the Crusaders have been in Christchurch. The long flight east the week before the game has to count against the Bulls, and if they do win this one it will be tantamount to them winning a final. On the Bulls’ side though is the fact that no less than 11 of their number have the experience of winning the Super Rugby trophy, so if there is one team that can match the Crusaders when it comes to knowing how to win at this stage, it is Saturday’s opponents.
- Crusaders team announcement
- Bulls team announcement
Prediction: Crusaders to win by between 7 and 12.
REDS v SHARKS (Brisbane, Saturday 11:40am)
The Sharks have moved Willem Alberts to lock, which is something I have been hoping they will do all season. The move could prove a revelation as Alberts has the power and the physicality for the position and will also bring the mobility that the Sharks will need against the Reds, who threatened to run them ragged in the league fixture at Mr Price Kings Park before a slew of injuries cut through the Reds and they started a slump that was to last a good few fixtures after that. The Sharks will miss Patrick Lambie and Frans Steyn, but have been running into good form. The problem though is that so have the Reds -- they have now won seven in a row, so must be regarded as the form team in the competition. They will be without the suspended Quade Cooper, but then they have played most of the season without Cooper. Ben Lucas grew into the role before Cooper returned from injury, so it’s not as if he is new to the Reds or the position. The Sharks have a good recent record against the Reds, winning five of their last six matches, but boast a poor record overall in Brisbane -- six losses in eight starts. The city though was the scene for their unexpected semifinal win over the Reds in the inaugural Super 12 season in 1996 and while the Reds must start as favourites, don’t bet too much against history repeating itself.
- Reds team announcement
Prediction: Reds to win narrowly.