No need to worry about new formats, conferences or even bonus points in SupeRugby any more; the regular season is over and the playoffs are set to begin – just five matches left to see which of the six remaining teams becomes provincial champions of the southern hemisphere.
Last weekend’s final round of matches certainly didn’t disappoint and it wasn’t until the end of the very last one between the Cheetahs and the Stormers that we knew exactly how the playoffs were going to shape up.
And ironically it is at the venue for the Rugby World Cup final in October where the playoffs begin when the Blues from Auckland take on the Waratahs from New South Wales at Eden Park.
It has been about a decade since an away team won a playoff match in SupeRugby but on paper I’d tip the Tahs to end that streak on Friday morning were it not for a horrible string of injuries to key players, with scrumhalf Luke Burgess added to that list during the week. Not only does it stretch their squad to the extent where they have to call on club players to make up their bench, they also have to move Kurtley Beale, the driving force behind their march to the finals, from full-back to stand-off.
It’s not that Beale won’t be able to do a job from there, it’s just that he is much more dangerous from deep and although the Blues have their own injury concerns, they impressed last week against the Highlanders when tries from Stephen Brett, Luke McAlister and Ulster-bound Jared Payne saw them overturn an early deficit to comfortably secure a home tie in the first round.
Now the Tahs still have enough quality on the pitch to keep it close, with Lachie Turner an able deputy at 15, centre Tom Carter in good try-scoring form of late and veteran Phil Waugh wanting to retire on a high note, but you just can’t help feeling that the inexperience on their bench will cost them over the 80 minutes and I’m predicting the Blues to come out on top by at least 7pts.
Then on Saturday morning the attention turns to Trafalgar Park in Nelson, New Zealand where the Crusaders, forced by the continuing Canterbury earthquakes to play away from home, will “host” the Sharks from South Africa’s Natal Province.
The visitors put in the performance of Round 18 by coming out on top at arguably the most hostile venue in SupeRugby, the Loftus Versfeld in Pretoria, as they forced the reigning champion Bulls out of the competition altogether. They relied on massive contributions from JP Pietersen, exiled Frenchman Frederic Michalak and upcoming star Patrick Lambie to see them through and will provide a stern test for the seven-times champion Crusaders.
But the home side will consider themselves unlucky not to have gotten a bye into the semifinals as it was only a postponed clash with the Chiefs due to the original earthquake in an earlier round that cost them the points to finish second on the overall ladder. Since then, considering they have been forced to play their matches away from home plus they’ve had injuries to key players, they have done incredibly well and you have to fancy them to keep the SupeRugby home streak going on the day.
Leinster fans would think they might have a close interest in this matchup as Matt Berquist of the Crusaders and Steven Sykes of the Sharks are headed for the RDS in the new season, but since the former is backup to Dan Carter and the latter has had problems with his ankle of late, it is likely that neither will feature.
Personally I feel the Sharks may have left it all out on the Versfeld last week and in their minds will consider that their “cup final” and will find the travelling too much to get their game to a level where they can beat coach Todd Blackadder’s side, who a expect to win by a double-digit margin.
Lying in wait for the two playoff winners are the Queensland Reds, who topped the overall table, and the Stormers from Cape Town, who clinched the South African Conference title and second spot overall with their win at the Cheetahs. Who they face in the semifinals will depend on who wins this weekend but if the matches go as I predict, the tournament semifinals will be Reds v Blues and Stormers v Crusaders.
On the popular Australian podcast Ruggamatrix this week, Reds coach Ewan McKenzie said he actually preferred not knowing his opponents during his extra week off because it’s possible to “over-prepare” for a contest when you have the extra week to study your opposition. Too bad for this Leinster fan that Tony McGahan didn’t feel the same way towards the end of May!
Enjoy your rugby this weekend wherever you are and I’ll be back here next week to preview those semfinals. JLP
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