An unexpected final match-up
You’d probably have to go back to 1999 to find such an unexpected Super Rugby final match-up.
On that occasion the third-placed Highlanders confounded the odds by beating the Stormers in Cape Town, while the fourth-placed Crusaders toppled the top qualifying Reds in Brisbane to set up a final in Dunedin.
Having gone to bed on Saturday night after the Chiefs' win over the Crusaders I had reasonable expectations of waking up to a Bulls win at Loftus.
I didn’t watch the Pretoria game live as I was short of sleep….the Blond Tornado had a tummy bug and had spent most of Friday night parking the tiger.
So we watched it off the recorder on Sunday morning. She wanted the Bulls to win, having been won over by their pink shirts when she went to their game against the Blues earlier this winter.
Not to be.
I have read much about the decision by Dewald Potgieter not to take shots at goal when they were on offer late in the game, and while at first I thought the guy had lost his marbles, having given it more thought I think I can understand what his mind-set was.
A bit like the Cheetahs against the same opposition the week before, there must have been this nagging feeling that….” if we score we go back into our own half, where it might be very hard to get out of, and they will have a chance of scoring a try”.
And in the end that’s what happened. Potgieter obviously felt it best to try and keep the pressure on deep in the Brumbies half, hopefully managing to muscle the ball over for a try that would have put it beyond reach, and if not at least keeping the Brumbies out of strike range.
And remember, that turning down three points three times in succession is not turning down nine points. It’s turning down three. In the end, with the coach ready to explode in the box, they did take the penalty, they got the three, and they’d stretched their lead using up some valuable clock time, so I don’t think Potgieter should shoulder the blame.
The big factors to me were, firstly, and I note that my colleague Brenden Nel has beaten me to the punch on this, the absence of Juandre Kruger at lineout time, because he had made an early departure for France. Without him the lineout was nowhere near as secure as pre-June.
And secondly, when it mattered most, the Bulls' defence was not up to scratch. The first Brumbies try looked spectacular, but one decent tackle was all that was needed to snuff it out.
And the winner came off a great read by Matt Toomua, when he spotted a mismatch on a Bulls forward, with an outside defender up too far, giving him the gap and a nice (and legitimate) pass infield did the rest.
I suspect the Bulls might take a while to get over this one, especially with a few big names now chasing the Euro.
But credit to Jake White. He has taken a franchise that had become a sow’s ear and has turned it back into a silk purse.
He has dependable men at the coalface in Stephen Moore, Ben Mowen, a couple of hard working no-name locks and the redoubtable George Smith.
And he has fashioned a very efficient and, at times, dangerous backline, again without any established stars.
They play a straightforward game (simple would not be the right word) but they are so efficient.
They will be disadvantaged by the travel factor for the final, but this is a result that has made people in New Zealand sit up and pay attention, because they simply were not expected to win at the Pretoria fortress.
If you saw ReUnion last week you would have seen that people in NZ heavily favoured a Bulls/Crusaders final, but that was ruled out with the Chiefs' victory in Hamilton….and I do wonder if that might have started to play in the minds of the Bulls players before they ran onto the field, the thought of having to make a long trip to New Zealand if they won? I’m not saying they didn’t want to win of course, I just wonder if their focus was 100 per cent on the game immediately in front of them.
I didn’t expect the Chiefs to win their semi either, but should have taken heed of the rather extraordinary stat that tells us that not once in the 16 times a semifinal has been played in New Zealand has the home team lost.
The Chiefs refused to let the Crusaders bully them at set piece or in the collision zone, they tackled everything that moved and, through a variety of means, disrupted the Crusaders' ball at the set piece and denied them any flow and rhythm.
They grabbed every chance on offer and beat an outstanding team in an excellent match.
Now they have to do it again.
I’m not sure that travel will be quite the factor in the 2013 final as it was last year, when the Sharks were forced into the ridiculous schedule of… fly to Brisbane, fly back to Cape Town, then turn around and fly all the way back to Hamilton.
The Brumbies were home in Canberra by Monday night, they are a very fit side and I think the excitement of being in the final will get them deep into the game before any jet-lag fatigue sets in.
Even so, much will depend on them making a strong start, but they have some hard-nosed leaders, a great coach and enough talent to be a real chance of becoming the first team since the Bulls in 2007 to win a final away from home.
Up against them will be a Chiefs side that has felt a bit under-appreciated as champions in New Zealand!
All the talk pre-season was about the Highlanders. The early buzz was about the Blues, and later in the season it was all about how the Crusaders were warming to the task. The Chiefs never quite received that amount of attention, something coach Dave Rennie has been moved to comment on a couple of times.
They have the best record in the competition this year, have scored the most points and the most tries. They will have 25 000 fans behind them, they know all about playing in a final, and they too have an outstanding coaching team.
So this looms as a battle of strategy, a battle of skill, a battle of will.
We have no round robin match this season to offer any clues…another failing of the current format…but home advantage means the Chiefs must start as slight favourites.