Last week the preliminary finals finished in line with the seedings with the Sharks and Brumbies going through to this week’s semi finals in a pair of close games in which both teams were push right to the final whistle. This week is semi final week in Super Rugby for 2014 and, it would be fair to say, the four best teams this season have made it to the final four.
Crusaders v Sharks, Christchurch
The first semi final this weekend comes from Christchurch with the 7 time champion Crusaders hosting the only South African franchise to make the finals in the Sharks.
Home ground advantage is a massive prize for being in the top two on the Super Rugby table and that advantage is no more strong than for the Crusaders in this game. They have hosted the Sharks on 11 occasions in home games and have only been bested once in that span. The Sharks had the better of the only meeting between the teams earlier this season, in a game where they finished with 14 players on the field.
The Crusaders had the week off last week and will be freshened nicely for this game. They have made two changes to the team that played two weeks ago with Richie McCaw and Corey Flynn coming in to the line up as Jordan Taufua and Ben Funnell return to the bench.
The Sharks were victorious last week in a tough encounter against the Highlanders. They have a number of changes to the team that won last week with the riskiest the return of Patrick Lambie after an extended injury layoff. Lambie’s return has seen a reshuffle in the back line with Frans Steyn moving out to the inside centre position and Paul Jordaan moving to 13 and J P Pietersen out of the wing.
This will be a game of contrasting styles: the Crusaders have attacked fluently in recent weeks whilst the Sharks play a grinding forward orientated game that hinges on their opponent making a mistake. Interestingly, the Crusaders have conceded fewer penalties than any other team in the competition this season which does not auger well for the Sharks.
Everything about this game points to a Crusaders victory: home ground advantage, the return of McCaw, the week off and their discipline. I can not see another result other than a Crusaders win.
Prediction: Crusaders by 11
Waratahs v Brumbies, Sydney
The second semi final this week is an all Australian affair as the Brumbies travel up the Hume Highway to Sydney to take on the Waratahs.
These teams have squared off against each other twice this season with the home teams winning on both occasions. Indeed, in contests between the two teams, the last time an away team was victorious was in 2011. I mentioned above how important the home ground advantage is that comes with being in the top two on the Super Rugby ladder. Again, in this game, the Waratahs have a significant home ground advantage against the Brumbies having hosted them 13 times and have won 11 times in that span.
The Brumbies come into this game having won their last two matches albeit counter balancing that is the fact that they are on a four game losing streak away from Canberra Stadium. They come into this game with an unchanged line up from the preliminary final last week against the Chiefs.
The Waratahs, as hard as it is for a Queensland to say this, have been the best team in the competition this season by some way and are in the midst of a seven match winning streak which is the best streak in Super Rugby this season. They have made two changes to the team that thrashed the Reds last week with Israel Folau returning from injury and Jacques Potgieter being added to the starting team.
The Waratahs were not all that impressive on their last start against the appalling Reds but will be well rested for this game and the return of their best player in Folau will only improve them. That said the Brumbies are a quality line up and will seek to press their obvious advantage in both set pieces and the experience stakes.
This is a game that could come down to how well the opposing captains manage the referee. Both Wallabies leaders, the battle between the vastly experience Mowen against the inexperienced but much trusted Hooper will be a fascinating tussle.
Ultimately though, and whilst I would love to say otherwise, I can not tip against the best team in the competition this season and that means I have to tip the Waratahs.
Prediction: Waratahs by 7