As Hutch tumbled out of the top 10% on SuperBru by backing the Chiefs and the Cheetahs to cause an upset last week, Super Rugby expert Richard Atkins brings us his predictions for this weekend’s playoffs.
While these new qualifying knockout stages are completely new territory for everyone involved, I think it’s worth considering the historical trends of the Super12/Super14 knockout phases.
If you look back at the Super Rugby knockout games of the past, two important facts jump out:
i) You have to go back around 10 years to find an occasion when the away team won a knockout game, and
ii) The games are often reasonably high-scoring affairs with teams throwing caution to the wind to try to get that victory.
With that in mind onwards to the two semi-final qualifiers:
Blues v Waratahs
The Blues broke their run of 4 straight losses with a strong victory against the Highlanders just in time to snag a playoff place. While this run of form might seem alarming, you have to consider those 4 losses included games against the 1st placed Reds, the 2nd placed Stormers and the ever brilliant, but homeless, Crusaders. In general the Blues have been a little hot and cold all season, but have still somehow managed to win games when they haven’t been playing particularly well: they seem to have a new hardness/cannyness about them this season.
The Waratahs have had a solid, if unspectacular (well apart from perhaps the home loss to the Cheetahs!) season but tellingly have lost to all of the Reds, Sharks, Bulls and indeed Blues when playing away from home. Add to that the fact that the ‘Tahs have just lost another 4 players to injury in the last week to add to their already-long sicklist, bringing their total to 12 missing squad members – including Berrick Barnes, Drew Mitchell, Wycliff Palu and now Luke Burgess.
All of this points me towards a victory for the Blues but I think they’ll play it tight.
Blues by 7
Crusaders v Sharks
Given that the Christchurch earthquake has forced the Crusaders to effectively play all of their Super Rugby matches away from home this year, not to mention the impact it must’ve had on the individual players, their performance this year has been nothing short of amazing (although to be honest everyone pretty much expected them to continue winning, they are the Crusaders after all…). Add to that the fact that they’ve missed almost all of their star players at some stage of the season and you’ll get a picture of how strong their team as a whole really is.
The Sharks haven’t had a great season by their lofty standards and up until the last game year it seemed unlikely that they would even be appearing in the playoffs. They were pretty comprehensively outplayed by the Crusaders at Twickenham, but they played brilliantly against the Bulls in the final regular season game and if they can play like that again they’ll stand a very real chance of upsetting the ‘Saders this time round. This is however a pretty big if. They probably viewed the Bulls game as a ‘final’ and the emotional and physical toll will have been big. Add to that, they have to travel half way around the world to Nelson and cross 10 timezones in the process and it feels like a pretty tall order to me.
While the South African and Stormer fan in me would like nothing more than a Sharks victory in this one, the Crusaders, helped by Dan Carter, Richie McCaw and Sonny Bill Williams, should win it comfortably.
Crusaders by 17