Odds are on a Newlands final
If you were to say that this weekend’s Super Rugby semifinals were up in the air, the expression would have as much of a literal interpretation as a figurative one, with the amount of flying the Sharks have had to do recently weighing heavily on the analysis.
Reading through the various websites and media forums around the rugby world over the past few days, it is apparent that the two matches to be decided this weekend -- Chiefs against Crusaders on Friday and Stormers hosting the Sharks on Saturday -- are up in the air in another sense too.
Because of the amount of flying the Sharks have had to do to get to Cape Town, with the flight to Brisbane from Durban having to be factored into the equation (the second week of tour is supposed to be the worst and in the sense of getting over jetlag the Sharks are still on tour), the Stormers do start at Newlands with a definite edge.
They haven’t lost at Newlands all season, and while the absence of Duane Vermeulen and Schalk Burger will be felt against a Sharks back-row that has run into impressive form, it’s also true that both those players have been absent for a significant part of a campaign which has seen them return an impressive success rate of 14 wins in 16 starts. The Stormers do have a winning habit, and more so than the Sharks, who have lost three times as many games during the course of the competition.
While we know full well the Sharks have always done well when cast in the position of underdogs, it is easier to make the Stormers favourites in Cape Town than it is to do the same with the Chiefs in Hamilton. It is hard to choose a winner for that game, with the last game between them, which the Crusaders only just won, being a good indicator of just how well matched they are.
The unavailability of Keiran Read will also hurt the Crusaders, who without Sonny Bill Williams and Chris Jack, among others, haven’t been quite as impressive this season as they were last year. They won well against the Bulls last week, appearing to hardly bother to get out of second gear in doing so, and like the Sharks, they have the momentum. The Chiefs lost their last two games of the league season.
Indeed, the similarity between the two semifinals is quite startling in the sense that they are both derby matches featuring teams that have won one match apiece in head to head showdowns this season, and in both the visiting teams are coming off good wins while the hosts were resting last weekend.
The Sharks are the odd one out when it comes to this being a showdown between the top four teams from the league season, but the semifinal weekend does arguably provide the right mix when it comes to form teams coming up against the sides that have been the most consistent through the year.
Those who are wearing South African and New Zealand caps this weekend and are not aligned to any of the teams shouldn’t find it difficult to decide what is best for them -- the Sharks will have little chance of winning a final in New Zealand after so much flying, while the Crusaders have the proven pedigree when it comes to flying to Cape Town to win a playoff game after doing it last year.
- Weekend’s Teams
- Working the Blindside - video preview
PREVIEWS AND PREDICTIONS (all times CAT, SA, GMT+2)
CHIEFS v CRUSADERS (Hamilton, Friday 9:35)
The Crusaders won the last game between these teams, but it was in Christchurch, and they wouldn’t have won had it not been for the way Sonny Bill Williams butchered what should have been a try-scoring movement at the end of the game. Had the Chiefs scored, like they should have done, they would probably have escaped with a draw.
That said, the fact Williams is lining up against the Crusaders this year, and not for them, is the biggest reason to feel that the Chiefs have a chance of beating them. That and the continued absence of Kieran Read, who is a more important player to the Crusaders than many believe. Had Read been present, I would have had no problem tipping a Crusaders win, but with him not there -- well, it’s up in the air.
Well, maybe not quite, for this is the time of the season when the teams start to play what is known as finals rugby, and for my money the Crusaders pack is better than the Chiefs. For all of Aaron Cruden’s great attributes, Dan Carter is also a more accomplished big game player. Those are the reasons why in my book the Crusaders are marginal favourites.
Prediction: Crusaders to edge it.
DHL STORMERS v SHARKS (Cape Town, Saturday 5:05pm)
Those who bet against the Stormers in this game because they didn’t score tries in the league phase of the season may misunderstand what the Stormers are about, and may be missing a crucial point that needs to be considered -- the Cape team have been playing finals rugby all year. For them, with their strong emphasis on their outstanding defensive game, it’s always been about winning, and never about bonus points. Regardless of what happens on Saturday, Allister Coetzee was vindicated on that score, for his team finished top of the log even though they never picked up a solitary four-try bonus point.
If the Sharks go to Newlands this weekend and flounder after a good win over the Reds it wouldn’t be the first time this season that has happened -- the Bulls looked unbeatable when they smashed the Reds by more than 50 points in Pretoria before Easter, but the following week they went to Cape Town and were humbled by a team that had only just got home against the Lions in their previous game. That is the Stormers, they don’t bury teams, but they somehow usually do enough to win, and the Sharks will find them a very different prospect to the Reds. The Australian franchise goes out to play with the ball whereas the Stormers prefer to play without the ball.
With all the travelling the Sharks have had to do, I would have no doubt that the Stormers would win if Schalk Burger or Duane Vermeulen was fit.
When Vermeulen was present earlier in the season no team could live with the Stormers physically. But while Deon Fourie produced a man of the match performance at No 8 in the last game, for me there is still a question mark in that area -- and it could be telling. There is also still a question mark against the Stormers scrum that was shown up by the Crusaders last year, and if the Sharks are to win, their victory drive will start in this phase. But while you always bet against the Sharks at your peril, as Bulls fans have discovered so often in the 22 years since the 1990 Currie Cup final, the odds are on the Stormers succeeding with operation shut-down and forcing the Sharks into mistakes in a way the Reds weren’t able to last week.
- Stormers team announcement
- Sharks team announcement
Prediction: Stormers by 3 to 9.