Week of the rogue factor
This is the part of the season where travel really become the rogue factor in Super Rugby.
The Chiefs were worthy champions last year, and were without question the best team in the competition over the duration, but when it came to the playoffs the planets did align quite nicely for them.
Sure, they had to beat the Crusaders in the semifinal, but they got home advantage because the Sharks, after squeezing through in 6th, went to Brisbane and dumped the Reds, before travelling all the way back to Cape Town for a courageous win over the top-qualifying Stormers.
The reward for all that was a trip all the way back to Hamilton to play the Chiefs, who’d not slept away from their own beds while the Sharks had been half way round the world and back, and then half way round the world again.
I said at the time that there should be a week between semi and final to counter such a debilitating schedule, and I’ll (un)happily say it again.
However I can imagine that there are a few Bulls supporters who think they might be the ones best placed to benefit from the travel factor this year.
They have home advantage against the Brumbies this week, and have probably pencilled in a few plans for a final at Loftus the following week after watching the Crusaders dismember the Reds.
The flip side is the chance that their team will have to make the long haul to Hamilton.
Either way, someone is going to be making a 14-hour flight across at least eight time zones, and that is going to be a factor in the grand finale of this showcase competition.
There is also the faintly ridiculous possibility that a Brumbies-Crusaders final would be played in Canberra, when the Crusaders have the better record of wins and points difference.
That is also something that needs sorting out. When the current format was negotiated, Saru pushed hard for a guaranteed playoff game at home for all three conference winners , their argument (a thin one, in my opinion) being that they were bringing a lot of currency to the competition and they wanted a guaranteed return at playoff time.
OK so have it that way, if you must, for the first week, but to suggest that the Brumbies – or any team scoring fewer log points than a wild-card qualifier – deserve home advantage from that point on is a stretch.
OK, rant over, let’s look at the Fab Four.
No quibbles over the semifinalists, the cream has risen to the top.
In fact, sticking with the dairy analogy, the Reds were creamed in Christchurch.
There was quite a sub-plot to this game, with the Aussie media, exalting the return to the Wallaby coaching ranks of a real Australian, suggesting that if the Reds could win in Christchurch and complete an unprecedented season sweep of Kiwi teams by an Aussie franchise, then all manner of doubt would be planted in the All Black plans ahead of the Bledisloe Cup clashes in August.
Optimism is a positive quality, but I thought they were getting a bit ahead of themselves, and now we are left to wonder just what Ewen McKenzie is thinking after a side featuring a few of his key Wallaby players was crushed.
Of most concern would have been the lack of impact from his Big Three, Cooper, Horwill and Genia.
Cooper copped more boorish attention from New Zealand fans, but I don’t think that was the problem. Receiving back-foot ball and with the Crusaders' defence in his face all night, he did nothing but pass and kick, kick and pass, and did not seem to have the heart for a fight – a worrying sign for a guy that I imagine McKenzie has already invested a lot of hope in for the internationals.
Both Cooper and Will Genia looked broken, mentally, physically and emotionally at the end of the game, and with Horwill leaving early with a calf strain, you do get the sense that the Lions series has really drained a lot of the energy out of the top Aussie players.
Genia spent half of the night as a second fullback, and I think he is paying a heavy price for Robbie Deans keeping him on the field for almost all of the Lions series, when I know the All Black staff have long believed that no halfback is capable of peak performance in a test match for more than 60 minutes at a time.
The Crusaders were outstanding in every facet, and the only worry is that all season they have tended to follow up a very good performance with an average one, which they can’t afford to do in Hamilton.
The Chiefs will be trying to rebound from a heavy defeat in Christchurch just a few weeks back, but have had a week to iron out a few bumps and bruises and work on the plan that Dave Rennie, Wayne Smith and co will have worked out to try and defuse the Crusaders' dominance.
Importantly they have their outstanding flanker Liam Messam back in the side after he missed Christchurch with a back injury.
The Chiefs will be tough, and have home advantage, but the Crusaders have compelling form, and have to start favourites, which I know Bulls fans will love hearing.
We had to wait another 24 hours before anyone could start booking semifinals, because the Brumbies share their ground with the Canberra Raiders league team, who had dibs on the Saturday time slot.
You had to feel for the Cheetahs' Riaan Smit, after his kick to level the game against the Brumbies at the death just missed.
In a way that kick kind-of summed up the Cheetahs' season. Looked good for so long, and then just hit the wood at the end.
Not his fault, and not the fault of skipper Adriaan Strauss for turning down the certain three points to go for a try late in the match. The feeling I got was that had they taken the three points to be four behind, they were not all that confident of getting themselves back into a scoring position. They had field position, they had momentum, and it was probably worth a roll of the dice.
Only problem was when they scored, it was out wide, and maybe they could have made more of an effort to score closer to the posts.
But still, a worthy season for the boys from Bloem. They have a lot of fans in Kiwi-land for their rollicking approach, but this year they have sustained their effort through the round robin and not faded away like they did last year, so they have made progress. If they can get a full season out of Johan Goosen next year, who knows what they might achieve.
The Brumbies have also been a bit flat since the Lions series, and will need to be a whole lot better to have any chance at Loftus, but I wouldn’t rule them out.
For a start Jake White has plenty of intellectual property on what is required and will have a plan. The Brumbies play to a fairly tight pattern and are hard to break down, but they haven’t been scoring tries and a lot will depend on whether they have the gas in the tank to implement it, and the muscle power to stifle the Bulls' power game.
They are a worthy team, the Brumbies, but it’s the Bulls for me, and a final against the Crusaders.