What an invigorating final week of Super Rugby action last week: the Hurricanes had a win against the Chiefs, the Brumbies opened the door for the Reds and the Reds got the job done and the South Africa teams secured their positions in the finals with some expected results.
With the Reds replacing the Brumbies in the final six predicted in this column last week, this week sees the Bulls and the Sharks traveling to Christchurch and Brisbane respectively to take on the Crusaders and the Reds with the Chiefs and the Stormers having the week off.
The week’s first fixture pits last year’s runner up, the Crusaders, host a Bulls line up whose form has been patchy over recent weeks to say the least. The Bulls team list is packed with talent which has translated to Bulls players being selected for the Springboks en masse. They are a franchise that is replete with big game experience having won their fair share of Super rugby titles and in Morne Steyn they have one of the best kickers in the competition, who can take advantage of any ill discipline coming from the Crusaders. All that said, the Bulls come into this fixture having won only two of their last six fixtures with those wins against the lowly Cheetahs and Lions.
Also in the negative column for the Bulls is the fact that they come to Christchurch off the back of a short turnaround and a long flight. The Crusaders return home, albeit to a new ground, for a final for the first time since the tragic Christchurch earthquakes. This game will be sold out and there will be a sea of red and black wearing fans looking to cheer their side home. Much like the Bulls this is a franchise loaded with international players and they possess the best finals record of any franchise in super rugby history. They started the season slowly whilst they awaited the return of McCaw and Carter however since their return the Crusaders machine of old has kicked into gear with only one or two minor glitches along the way (the principal one being their surprise loss to the Rebels).
They have won eight of their last ten games and make up for the loss of Kieran Read with the return of the dynamic Robbie Fruean to the centres. All in all, this is a worthy start to the Super Rugby finals campaign with two super heavyweights of provincial rugby facing off. I think the Crusaders will get over the line in this one in a match that is likely to be fairly even in the forwards but with the Crusaders’ class in the backline seeing them through: Crusaders by 11.
The second match of qualifying finals weekend comes to us from Suncorp Stadium with the Reds hosting the Sharks. It has been a week filled with drama for the Reds with Quade Cooper on the wrong end of a one week suspension from SANZAR judiciary officer Tully arising out of his tackle on Berrick Barnes in the game against the Waratahs. Ben Lucas returns to the run on team in Cooper’s place and will not let anyone down. Suncorp Stadium has again been a fortress for the Reds this year and since their woeful tour to South Africa and Perth earlier in the season they have been consistently putting themselves in position to win games.
I was concerned last week at the Reds points scoring ability however they proved me, and many others wrong, with their bonus point winning performance against the Waratahs. There are more lauded backrows around Super Rugby however over recent weeks the Reds backrow contingent consisting of Higginbotham, Gill, Schatz, Robinson and Samo have been in outstanding form and again it will be through the backrow that the Reds will look to lay a foundation for their speedy backline. The Sharks qualified in sixth place for this fixture and arrive in Brisbane without their star fullback Patrick Lambie and Springbok inside centre Francois Steyn who will both be big losses for them. Last week their scrum struggled against the Cheetahs however they welcome the return of Tendai “The Beast” Mtawarira who with the du Plessis brothers will put significant pressure on the Reds front row at set piece time. They come into this fixture with their only loss in the last seven games to the lowly Lions before the international break and will be looking to former France representative Freddie Michalak to direct them around the field.
This ought be a very entertaining encounter if nothing else though the flow of the game may well be determined by the man with the whistle. It goes without saying that one of the major concerns for Reds fans will be the influence that Durban born and raised referee Jonathan Kaplan will have on the game given that the last time Kaplan refereed the Reds he adjudged them to have infringed an astonishing seventeen times. Nonetheless, in front 45,000 avid Reds fans in the greatest stadium on earth I expect the Reds to ride the wave of their support and win this fixture: Reds by 9.
Whatever happens this presents as a wonderful weekend of rugby with two games between four fairly evenly matched teams. I, for one, have been pumped up for these games since the final whistle blew at Suncorp Stadium last Saturday night and cannot wait for it to get underway.