Don’t bet against the champs
The Houdini Act that was enacted by the champion Reds to get themselves into the Super Rugby Finals Series should not have pleased the teams that went into an intriguing final week of league competition already guaranteed of a place in the play-offs.
There is a disciplinary pending on Quade Cooper, who has been cited, but if he gets through it, the Reds are now back to being the combination they were when they won the trophy last year.
They wouldn’t have backed their chances of making it into the knockouts when they went into the final weekend, as too many things needed to happen in their favour.
But those things did happen, with the Blues denying the Brumbies the league point Jake White’s team needed to make sure of third spot in Canberra, and the Reds took advantage of it by scoring a four-try bonus-point win over longstanding rivals, the Waratahs.
It serves as an omen in the same way that the Bulls’ massive win over them in 2007 did.
Speaking to the top coaches during the season it was always apparent that the Reds were considered danger-men, with the hope being that they would not make it into the top six.
That was because while they battled at an early stage of the season, everyone knew what they would be capable of once at full strength.
They are one of the three form teams in the competition at this juncture, the others being the Crusaders and the Sharks.
Indeed, with just the knock-outs now to come, and both of the protagonists still in it, it will be interesting to see over the next week what the bookies say about the chances of a re-enactment of last year’s final between the Reds and Crusaders.
It is starting to look distinctly possible, although for that to happen the Crusaders will have to do something similar to what they did last year by travelling to Cape Town for a semifinal before returning to Brisbane for the final.
OBSTACLE OF TRAVEL
That not inconsequential fact – that they will have to do quite a bit of travelling in order to win it – is the big obstacle faced by the Reds, Crusaders and Sharks.
The Sharks got into the top six, as they were expected to do, by scoring a bonus-point win over the Cheetahs in Durban. It looked doubtful at halftime, and they are going to have to start more convincingly against the Reds in Brisbane.
But in the second half they were back to the form they showed in thrashing the Bulls the previous week.
The problem for them is not so much the fact that a win in Brisbane will book them a semifinal in Cape Town against the Stormers, for they may fancy their chances there, but the return journey they would then have to undertake to New Zealand for the final.
It just seems like too much flying is required by them, so for the Sharks, the best scenario, or maybe only scenario if they want to win the trophy for the first time, would be for the Bulls to knock over the Crusaders in Christchurch this coming weekend and then do the trick again the following weekend in Hamilton and thus set up an all-South African final.
But a Sharks/Bulls final doesn’t seem much of a prospect right now given what those two teams have to do to get there.
For the Bulls to win two knock-out games in successive weeks on New Zealand soil would be one heck of an achievement and if they manage to do that, they would deserve to be in the running for championship honours.
It is the Reds though, that should be giving the other teams a queasy feeling, for with respect to the Brumbies, they are the class Aussie act. And of the three form teams mentioned, they potentially have the least amount of travel to look forward to.
They will go to New Zealand for the semifinal should they win Saturday’s first play-off against the Sharks, and it will be tough for them if they then have to travel to Cape Town for the final.
But they may rate the chances of the Crusaders beating the Stormers and then having to fly to Brisbane for the decider. If that does happen, don’t bet against the Reds retaining the trophy.
That is not to say that the advantage that the Stormers have given themselves by booking home-ground advantage should be negated as a factor.
While all the other teams are looking at a lot of travel in amongst the rugby over the next few weeks, the Stormers, by completing the season with a phenomenal record of 14 wins in 16 starts and finishing top, are assured that no matter what happens from now, all travelling will be only short trips by car or bus.
It’s the one big thing in the favour of a team that has shown enviable commitment to the cause and the refusal to be beaten that marks champion sides, but which has suffered a few too many injuries at loose-forward.
They are clearly a team that knows how to win, and they haven’t lost at Newlands all season, but on the evidence of their last league match they have a few things to figure out during the bye week that separates them from a semifinal against either the Crusaders or Sharks.
Hurricanes 28 Chiefs 25
Reds 32 Waratahs 16
Crusaders 38 Western Force 24
Brumbies 16 Blues 30
DHL Stormers 26 Rebels 21
Sharks 34 Toyota Cheetahs 15
Vodacom Bulls 37 MTN Lions 20
FIRST ROUND OF FINALS SERIES
21 July 09.35 Crusaders v Bulls Christchurch
21 July 11.40 Reds v Sharks Brisbane