Last week the season ended for the Reds and Bulls in two exhilarating finals that, it must be said, saw two teams not at the best relegated for 2012. That said, it seems that having watched basically every game of Super Rugby this season that the four best teams will contest the semi-finals this week.
The first semi-final kicks off Friday night at Waikato Stadium in Hamilton with the Chiefs hosting the Crusaders. The Crusaders have hit form at precisely the right time of the season and last week executed their game plan perfectly to ensure that the Bulls were never in the contest. The Crusaders are finals specialists and have an unrivalled record at the pointy end of the Super Rugby season having won eight of nine finals encounters against opponents from the land of the long white cloud. They are replete with experienced players and in McCaw and Carter possess probably the two best players in the game at the moment, if not of their generation. Their record in matches at Waikato Stadium is excellent having won seven of their last eight fixtures. The Chiefs enter this fixture having had the week off last week and that may not be a positive given their loss earlier in the season to the Reds after the bye and their loss to the Crusaders immediately after the international break. That said, they have been worthy champions of the New Zealand conference given their form throughout the season and will bring to this fixture significant confidence. They will need a massive effort from their underrated forward pack, which was smashed by the Crusaders last time around, and their back line stars in Aaron Cruden and Sonny Bill Williams in order to defeat the Crusaders in this one. There are some mouth watering one on one contests in this fixture: Carter v Cruden, Williams v Crotty and Kerr-Barlow v Ellis could all be game changers. Ultimately, I am tipping the Crusaders to win this fixture: they have struck top form and have their stars firing. This will be a cracking game and close one: Crusaders by 7.
The second semi-final is an all South African conference affair that sees the table topping Stormers host the Reds slaying Sharks at Newlands Stadium. The Sharks were brilliant last week against the Reds: simply put they were defensively dominant in defeating their more fancied opponents and took their chances when they arose. Whilst their forward pack has received many of the plaudits for their form this year, it was plain to see from their performance at Suncorp Stadium that their star wingers in JP Pietersen and Lwazi Mvovo have struck top form and their performance will be vital to any chance of victory. They have won seven of their last eight games and have split the games played already this season with the Stormers one a piece. They will need to attack the Stormers line at every opportunity because playing a game of attrition against the Stormers will see only one result and that is a Stormers victory. The Stormers remain much maligned despite being the overall leaders of the competition at the end of the round robin stages. It is true that they have scored the least number of tries in the competition this season but that factor is overwhelmingly mitigated by their defensive prowess coupled with the metronomic boot of Peter Grant who, in only missing three shots at goal all year, possesses a 94% success rate for the season. The conundrum that surrounds the Stormers is that in spite of their less than impressive attacking form, they possess in Bryan Habana, Gio Aplon and Joe Pietersen one of the best back three combinations in domestic rugby. This may be the fixture where, by dint of the way I expect the Sharks to play, the Stormers may finally need to unleash their attack to progress through to the final. Again, there are some fantastic personal match ups in this fixture with Grant v Michalak and Habana v Mvovo just two highlights. I think, despite my comments about both sides needing to attack in this fixture, I think the best defence will ultimately prevail in this fixture and that means I cannot go past the Stormers to win and thereby secure the right to host to the grand final next week: Stormers by 6.
This will be another fantastic weekend of super rugby for fans and whilst rugby is the epitome of a team game it does strike me this week more than most both of the semi-finals could come down to the outcome of some key one on one battles between some of the stars of the game.