by Steve McMorran
Despite being defending champions and finishing atop the Super Rugby standings in the regular season, the Chiefs accept that they’re underdogs in Saturday’s all-New Zealand semifinal against the Crusaders.
Though they won 12 of 16 games to qualify automatically for the semifinals and though they beat the Crusaders in the first of two regular season meetings, the Hamilton-based Chiefs are given little chance of halting the Crusaders’ drive to an eighth Super Rugby title.
The Christchurch-based Crusaders have developed an irresistible momentum in the second half of the season, winning five straight matches since their 28-19 loss to the Chiefs on May 24. Their 43-15 win over the Chiefs three weeks ago and their 38-9 quarterfinal win over the Queensland Reds make them hot title favorites.
The Pretoria-based Bulls will host the ACT Brumbies in the other semifinal after finishing second behind the Chiefs in the regular season to earn home advantage in the playoffs.
The Bulls performed substantially above expectations to finish atop the South African conference and won eight straight matches before a loss to the Stormers in the last round cost them the chance of finishing in first place overall.
The Canberra-based Brumbies, who edged the Cheetahs 15-13 last weekend, face the immense task of traveling to South Africa for the semifinal and attempting to overcome the Bulls’ formidable home advantage at Loftus Versfeld.
The task is a larger one for the members of the Brumbies’ squad who played for Australia against the British and Irish Lions and may still be recovering from the physical and emotional strain of that series defeat.
The All Blacks’ mid-year series against France was less taxing and neither the Chiefs nor the Crusaders have been harmed by their players’ involvement. If anything, the Crusaders’ form has steadily improved in the month since the test window, led particularly by an upswing in the form of star flyhalf Dan Carter, who scored 18 points in their win over the Chiefs and 20 against the Reds.
The Chiefs’ sandwiched their loss to the Crusaders between unconvincing wins over the Blues and Hurricanes and seem well short of the form which carried them to their first Super Rugby title last year.
“Most of the country is writing us off, which is not a bad thing,” Chiefs coach Dave Rennie said. “But we’re happy with where we’re heading and we’ve got a pretty happy bunch who are keen to make amends from the last time we played,” the Crusaders.
“Obviously they’ll come in as favorites but we get to play them at home.”
The Chiefs have carefully analyzed their recent heavy loss to the Crusaders and are confident of repairing the deficiencies that match highlighted.
“We were caught short, especially from an intensity point of view, so we can change that quickly because we can control that,” Rennie said. “We’ve been here before, we’ve played the Crusaders quite a bit over the last couple of years and so we know what to expect.”
The Crusaders have named the same 22 they deployed against the Reds, resisting any temptation to elevate All Blacks captain Richie McCaw from the bench into the starting XV. McCaw returned to top rugby in last weekend’s match, playing the last 15 minutes.
Coach Todd Blackadder said starting McCaw “was never part of our thinking” because the veteran backrower is only just returning from an extended break and “it would be a huge step to go into a game like this.”
The Bulls have been able to nurse several key players back to health during the break they earned by qualifying directly for the semifinals. Scrumhalf Francois Hougaard and center Jan Serfontein have recovered from injuries and been named in the starting lineup, while Junior Springboks lock Paul Willemse has been included on the bench.
“We have worked hard to put ourselves in a position where we could host a semifinal at home and achieved that,” Bulls coach Frans Ludeke said. “We cannot allow all that effort to go to waste.
“We certainly respect the Brumbies. But this match will be about us and our ability and drive to make them play the game at our tempo.”
Brumbies coach Jake White shunned the temptation to ring changes after last weekend’s unconvincing performance against the Cheetahs.
“They have a good record at Loftus and … they are a typical South African side: very big and physical with some quality finishers out wide,” said White, who guided South Africa to the 2007 World Cup title. “So it’s up to our players to combat that with our own game.” – AP