After 20 weeks of fixtures with a long break in between, it is now down to the pointy end of the season with the qualifying finals in Super Rugby. Last weekend’s fixtures saw the final make up of the final six change only slightly with the Brumbies loss consigning them to third place whilst the Chiefs jumped the Bulls courtesy of them being bested by the Stormers.
All of that means that the Chiefs and Bulls have the week off this week and they will be watching with interest who they will face in next week’s preliminary finals. For those already with an eye on next week, the match ups will work this way: the Chiefs will face the lowest ranked winning whilst the highest ranked winner will travel to Pretoria to play the Bulls.
Crusaders v Reds
The first qualifying final is the repeat of the 2011 grand final among many other epic encounters in recent times between two of the most storied franchises in Super Rugby. The statistics weigh heavily in the favour of the home team: they have played each other 19 times in Super Rugby competition and the Crusaders have been successful on 13 of those occasions. Worse still for the statistically minded, the Crusaders have won 7 of the 8 encounters between the teams in Christchurch.
The Reds will have welcomed the return of their two best players in James Horwill and Will Genia this week however have a large injury toll in the back line which sees Anthony Faingaa, Mike Harris and Digby Ioane all on the sidelines. They were pretty ordinary last week against the Waratahs and showed significant rust after having six weeks off. The Reds will be looking for their back row in Quirk, Schatz and Gill to attack the break down and put the Crusaders off their game. The Reds have won their last two matches but after such a long break any consideration of that form line must be limited at best.
Conversely, the Crusaders have been the form team of the competition since the All Blacks’ international break and have shown their finals credentials with a strong victory against the defending champion Chiefs. One only has to look at the Crusaders forward pack to see the quality in their line up with it being near All Black strength and then of course there is the fly half combination of Carter and Taylor which of late has been without peer. They are undefeated at home this season and will be looking at extending that streak to nine games in a row.
This is a game replete with personal battles: Horwill v Romano, Carter v Cooper, Read v Schatz and, if he gets on the field McCaw v Gill all present as massive highlights in this fixture and all have the potential to be game changers.
This is a particularly tough one for me to tip. My heart says the Reds BUT my head and all semblance of form lines are the way of the Crusaders. I would love to see the Reds win and don’t really care by how much but in the interests of fairness have to say that I expect the Crusaders to win in what will be an epic encounter.
Prediction: Crusaders by 4
Brumbies v Cheetahs
The second qualifying final is a rare Sunday afternoon fixture from Canberra Stadium between the winner of the Australian conference, the Brumbies, and the Cheetahs in their first finals campaign since entry into Super Rugby in 2006. Since that time the teams have played seven times and the Cheetahs have only been successful twice in that span.
For the Cheetahs it has been their best season in their seven years in the competition. The attacking flair they have shown in the preceding six years is still there, albeit a little bit tempered if you believe Jake White, but there has been a steel in their defence that has been missing the past. A compelling statistic in their favour is that they are undefeated against Australian opposition so far this season. They come into this fixture off the bye last week, the points for which guaranteed their place in the final six, and that does not bode well for them given that their history after bye weeks is less than impressive.
The Brumbies won the Australian conference and were the best team in the conference all season. Jake White, in his second year of coaching this line up have played complete rugby built off a one of the most solid forward packs in the competition. Ben Mowen is an Australian captain in waiting and has lead them brilliantly this season. They have not named their team as yet save that George Smith’s position has been confirmed on the side of the scrum. They will be much better for their run last week against the Force last week after a long break.
Earlier this week I wrote about the difficulties faced by the Australian franchises not playing for six weeks and then being expected to play finals football. That difficulty is mitigated somewhat in this game with the Cheetahs coming into this fixture off the bye and having had to travel from Bloemfontein for this game. I expect this to be a cracking match that will be tighter than many expect and am tipping the Brumbies to prevail in front of their home crowd after the traveling Cheetahs run out of puff in the last 20 minutes.
Prediction: Brumbies by 9
This will be a wonderful weekend of rugby that forms part of a massive weekend of sport for Australian fans. I desperately hope that the Australian conference teams make their way through to the next round of the finals however, as I have noted above, I think the Crusaders are very likely to be successful given their current form which will see the Brumbies traveling to Pretoria to confront the Bulls and the Crusaders driving up the road to play the Chiefs.