Beware of the underdog
The ticket sellers at Loftus are probably bracing themselves for a busy few days after Saturday’s Vodacom Super Rugby semifinals, but don’t write off the underdog chances of preventing next week’s eagerly anticipated decider between the Vodacom Bulls and Crusaders from happening.
While those two teams are the favoured combinations heading into the last four, with the Bulls’ status based purely on home ground advantage and the Crusaders’ on their impressive current form, Chiefs coach Dave Rennie may be right when he says his men are enjoying being underdogs.
And Crusaders captain and No 8 Kieran Read made a perceptive comment last week when after his team’s rout of the Reds he pointed out that if his men backed up one impressive performance with another it would be a first for them this season. For whatever reason, the Crusaders have tended to be hot one week and cold the next.
The Chiefs are the champions and are good enough to have topped the log for most of the regular season, so having some of the pressure released by being written off even though they are playing on their home ground does make them dangerous.
They got smashed by the Crusaders (43-15) a few weeks ago, but that game was in Christchurch and they had less to play for then than they have now.
If it were not for the mouth of their coach Jake White the Brumbies might consider themselves to be in a similar position to the one Rennies’s team is in. But White’s at times refreshing and at other times irritating refusal to say anything but what he thinks, and he is always confident, may have helped the Bulls this week in the same way that his talking helped the Stormers before a match at Newlands earlier this year.
On that occasion the Brumbies came to Cape Town unbeaten and on top of the log. But the Stormers smashed them, and scored four tries in the process, mainly because the Bumbies had alerted them with their performance against the Sharks the previous week, and White had kept reminding them in the media in the build-up, that the visitors were in fact a good team and deserved to be taken seriously.
The biggest danger to the Bulls would be if they believed they had an easier semifinal now than they would have had were the Crusaders their opponents and that this is just a stepping stone to next week.
Thanks mainly to the hype around White and the Brumbies, however, they will probably be thinking no such thing – and rightly so, for the Brumbies were also front-runners in Super Rugby for most of the way.
And their recent poor form has been matched by the equally questionable form of the Bulls, who in their last match joined the Brumbies by being outplayed at Newlands by the Stormers during the regular season.
PREVIEWS AND PREDICTIONS( all times CAT, SA, GMT+2)
CHIEFS v CRUSADERS (Hamilton, Saturday 9:35am)
The Chiefs had game issues earlier in the competition but they managed to keep winning. Now they’re also losing players to injury on top of those game issues, and in the last few matches they’ve struggled. The Crusaders, by contrast, have their top players back and now that the business end of the competition has arrived they look invigorated and hungry.
Anyone who saw the Crusaders hammer the Chiefs the last time these two teams played will agree that the only thing the Chiefs really have in their favour is home ground advantage. It could though be telling, for most of the Crusaders’ recent surge of form has been in their backyard.
This should be a high quality match played at a furious intensity. The Chiefs have enough quality to challenge and the game will probably be close but it’s hard to see Crusaders not ending on the winning side and booking themselves a trip to the final, wherever that may be.
CHIEFS: 15. Gareth Anscombe, 14. Lelia Masaga, 13. Charlie Ngatai, 12. Andrew Horrell, 11. Asaeli Tikoirotuma, 10. Aaron Cruden, 9. Tawera Kerr-Barlow, 8. Matt Vant Leven, 7. Taerau Latimer, 6. Liam Messam, 5. Brodie Retallick, 4. Craig Clarke (capt), 3. Ben Tameifuna, 2. Hika Elliot, 1. Toby Smith.
Replacements: 16. Rhys Marshall, 17. Ben Afeaki, 18. Mike Fitzgerald, 19. Sam Cane, 20. Augustine Pulu, 21. Bundee Aki, 22. Robbie Robinson.
CRUSADERS: 15. Israel Dagg, 14. Tom Marshall, 13. Ryan Crotty, 12. Tom Taylor, 11. Zac Guildford, 10. Dan Carter, 9. Andy Ellis, 8. Kieran Read (capt), 7. Matt Todd, 6. George Whitelock, 5. Sam Whitelock, 4. Luke Romano, 3. Owen Franks, 2. Corey Flynn, 1. Wyatt Crockett.
Replacements: 16. Ben Funnell, 17. Joe Moody, 18. Luke Whitelock, 19. Richie McCaw, 20. Willi Heinz, 21. Tyler Blyendaal, 22. Adam Whitelock.
Referee: Steve Walsh
Prediction: Crusaders to win
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VODACOM BULLS v BRUMBIES
(Loftus Versfeld, Saturday 5:05pm)
A few years ago you would have been inviting a visit from a psychologist to have your head read were you to suggest that the Bulls’ advantage might be at the back, but in terms of their willingness to attack, that is probably the case going into this game. JJ Engelbrecht, Bjorn Basson and company are perhaps better primed to make the most of attacking ball than a Brumbies backline that hasn’t had much of a conversion rate across the last two matches.
Not that it will be at the back where the game will be decided, and that is where the Bulls have to be careful. They were able to get away with poor scrumming earlier in the competition because they had players like Arno Botha who could turn poor ball into good ball, but Botha is missing. The Brumbies, particularly Benn Alexander, gave the Cheetahs a torrid time in the set-scrums in the first hour in Canberra last Sunday, and more of the same in this match and the Bulls could be in trouble.
And then there is the lineouts, the area where in the Victor Matfield era so much of platform for Bulls success has been created. Losing Juandre Kruger to overseas commitments at such an untimely juncture of the season was a big loss to the Bulls in this regard, and it became even more critical when Pierre Spies was injured. Suddenly the lineout doesn’t look the force it was, and much will depend on what Matfield, in his new trading as a coach, has been able to do during the past fortnight.
If he gets it right, then the Bulls should win, for while the Brumbies have one of the best kicking games in the competition, the Bulls have players such as Morne Steyn who know Loftus like the back of their hands and have made a habit of causing opposition teams to suffer there. Brumbies coach Jake White will of course know that and he is clever enough to devise a plan to blunt the Bulls.
But while the Bulls weren’t that flush in their last outing at Loftus against the Sharks, they did still win that game, and they’ve won everything they’ve played at home this season. That makes them strong favourites to keep the sequence up.
VODACOM BULLS: 15. Zane Kirchner, 14. Akona Ndungane, 13. JJ Engelbrecht, 12. Jan Serfontein, 11. Bjorn Basson, 10. Morne Steyn, 9. Francois Hougaard, 8. Dewaldt Potgieter (capt), 7. Jacques Potgieter, 6. Deon Stegmann, 5. Grant Hattingh, 4. Flip van der Merwe, 3. Werner Kruger, 2. Chiliboy Ralepelle, 1. Dean Greyling.
Replacements: 16. Callie Visagie, 17. Frik Kirsten, 18. Morne Mellett, 19. Paul Willemse, 20. Jono Ross, 21. Jano Vermaak, 22. Jurgen Visser.
BRUMBIES: 15. Jesse Mogg, 14. Henry Speight, 13. Tevita Kuridrani, 12. Christian Lealiifano, 11. Clyde Rathbone, 10. Matt Toomua, 9. Nic White, 8. Ben Mowen (capt), 7. George Smith, 6. Peter Kimlin, 5. Sam Carter, 4. Scott Fardy, 3. Ben Alexander, 2. Stephen Moore, 1. Scott Sio.
Replacements: 16. Siliva Siliva, 17. Ruan Smith, 18. Fotu Auelua, 19. Colby Faingaa, 20. Ian Prior, 21. Andrew Smith, 22. Joe Tomane.
Prediction: Bulls to win