Defence defines Super Rugby finals

When the Sharks defeated Queensland at Suncorp Stadium a week ago, the feature of their victory was an intense, steadfast effort in defence.

The Reds enjoyed most of the territory and possession, particularly in the second half, but they could not break through a mightily determined South African line.

It was a similar story in Hamilton on Friday night, as the Chiefs triumphed over both their opposition and the statistics.

Possession and field position both solidly favoured the Crusaders, but the visitors were unable to convert their statistical dominance into points.

This failure was a product of the Chiefs’ unrelenting pressure in defence. The hosts maintained a swift line speed all night and never lowered their intensity at the breakdown.

Normally unflappable Crusaders were forced into errors as they invariably received the ball with defenders bearing down on them. Even Daniel Carter was guilty of committing several uncharacteristic but pivotal mistakes.

A final margin of just three points flattered the Crusaders. While they did enjoy a bigger slice of possession, the visitors looked rattled for most of the game. They were decidedly second best on the night.

Defence is indisputably the theme of these Super Rugby playoffs so far. The two finalists both would have fallen earlier if not for their determination to hold the line.

It is commonly said that you can gauge a team’s chances of victory within the opening ten minutes of a match, just by examining the players’ intensity and focus in defense. An aggressive line presages an especially committed performance, while a passive defence can reflect complacency or laziness.

We may know whether the Sharks are a chance of winning Saturday night’s final inside the opening quarter. Having endured a huge amount of travel in the last several weeks, the visitors may be understandably jaded or fatigued.

But if they confront the Chiefs with the same level of physicality that has defined their performances of late, this final could remain in the balance until the very last minute. Defence, not attack, will decide the Super Rugby championship in 2012.

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