In December 2010, a series of devastating floods hit Australia, particularly the state of Queensland and its capital Brisbane. Over 200,000 people were affected and the damage was initially estimated at over €750million.
On the 18th February, 2011, despite Brisbane’s SunCorp stadium pitch having been totally underwater a matter of weeks before, the Queensland Reds were able to fulfil their opening fixture in the new-look SupeRugby tournament and at the time it was said their come-from-behind 21-20 victory over the Western Force was a major boost for the region.
Just four days later, an earthquake measuring 6.3 on the Richter scale struck 10 miles southeast of Christchurch in the Canterbury region of New Zealand. Although less powerful than the one that had hit the same area the previous September, it was far more devastating, with 181 fatalities and upwards of €9billion in damages.
The local SupeRugby franchise, the seven-time champion Crusaders, had two postpone its next home fixture with the Hurricanes and not only were unable to host any more matches in this tournament, the NZRU had to declare the region unsafe for World Cup matches in September as well.
So although a sporting contest can do precious little to make up for such tragedy, the two events provide a telling backdrop of reality to this Saturday’s SupeRugby final, to be played at SunCorp, between the Reds and the Crusaders.
And you’d have a hard time convincing me that the two teams don’t deserve to be there on merit either. The Reds have had a few critics, particularly in the New Zealand and South African press, in that the only reason they secured top spot in the overall ladder and the home advantage that came with it was because of their easier regular season schedule which included two easy victories over the brand new team the Melbourne Rebels.
But regardless of venue, Ewan McKenzie’s lads showed that they deserve to be involved at this stage of the season when they comfortably dispatched the Blues by 30-13 in the semifinal last weekend. To put four tries on the board at this stage of a tournament is always impressive, and although winger Rod Davies got many of the headlines for his hat-trick, the bulk of the credit should go to Quade Cooper who ran the offence spectacularly throughout.
And of course Cooper can’t get the job done on his own, he is ably supported by not only Davies but also the likes of Will Genia, Digby Ioane and Beau Robinson – just a few of a host of names the Reds have called on over the campaign to get them within 80 minutes of a first ever championship since the game went professional.
On the Crusaders side of things, the disruption back home plus the loss for most of the regular season to Richie McCaw would prove too much for most sides, but not so Todd Blackadder’s men. They came back to top the New Zealand conference and then made light work of the top two South African teams, the Sharks and the Stormers, to reach the final. In defeating the latter last Saturday they because the first away team to win a playoff in SupeRugby for over a decade, and they did it with plenty of room to spare, 29-10.
So how will the two sides match up at SunCorp? Well if their meeting at the same venue earlier in the season is anything to go by, it will be tight. McCaw actually played that day and it took a last-gasp penalty from Quade Cooper to win the day for the home side 17-16.
For me, having watched both semifinals closely, the one aspect of both teams’ play that impressed me most was their defence, and here lies the key to victory on the day in my book.
They both seem to deploy a system very similar to Leinster when the opposition has the ball in that they don’t fully commit their pack to the breakdown and instead spread defenders across the field making it very difficult to cross the gain line on every possession. And ironically in the semifinals both were only breached the once and what’s more and the same time, right before the halftime buzzer, so you can be sure they will be primed and ready for a full eighty-minute shift of tackling on Saturday.
That means it all boils down to how the offences try to break that line. The Crusaders for their part will rely on their all-star out half Dan Carter to punish the Reds when they give away penalties, as well as for helping Sonny Bill Williams to find the right lines to crash through. However, if their performance against the Stormers was anything to go by, chances are they will play for territory more often than not as it reaped great rewards for them in Cape Town – the home side just could not deal with being on the back foot so often.
But if they are to kick the ball regularly to the Reds, they will have to make sure it stays away from Quade Cooper, for he has an ability to create something out of nothing that is rarely seen in the modern professional fifteen-man game.
I once joked in a tweet that if you were to get a helicopter to grab and winch him 100m into the air when he had the ball, not only would he still try and offload it, he’d probably find his man! So although Carter definitely has the edge on him in the goalkicking stakes, the Australian outhalf more than makes up for it with his creativity and this final could be his chance to show the world that he is indeed one of the game’s next greats.
Which leads me to my prediction. Well, the bookies seems to have the visitors as narrow favourites, and it’s true, if you’d back anyone to win two away matches in a row in this tournament it would be the Crusaders, but for me, I’m letting myself be ruled by my heart. I picked the Reds before the season began and I’m sticking with them to lift the trophy in front of what should be a sellout crowd, but only after an enthralling contest and by possibly the narrowest of margins.
Be sure and watch the match if you can, it kicks off at 10:40am Saturday Irish time and will be live on Sky Sports. I can pretty much guarantee it will be an exciting end to a competition that I have enjoyed immensely despite what the critics say, and although there has to be a loser on the day, both regions can be proud of the efforts put in by their top rugby franchises.
I’ll see you in a couple of weeks for my Tri-nations preview. JLP
You can read my blog at http://www.harpinonrugby.net/