And finally we have it, semi-final time! There weren’t really any surprises in the new-fangled ‘playoffs’ with both home teams winning pretty comfortably, and the team that had to travel halfway across the world for one game (the Sharks) suffering the most.
What’s interesting now, is that the two ‘home’ teams from the playoffs now have to experience life on the other side as they travel to take on their opponents in the semis, at the same time carrying the burden of knowing that even if they win, they’ll probably have to travel at least the same distance again for the finals.
Before I look at the matchups here, what I said last week about Super Rugby knockout games is worth repeating again:
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.
Reds v Blues
The battle of the primary colours for the second time this season: last time they played in round 13, the game was played at Suncorp Stadium in Brisbane and the Reds won 37-31. Same teams, same venue, and I think the same result is likely too.
If you look at the scorecard from last weekend’s game against the Waratahs, the Blues won pretty convincingly, but that doesn’t quite paint the full picture as the ‘Tahs had a big hand in giving them the game with poor decisions and poor execution. The Blues managed to grind out yet another victory without playing particularly well, but they looked pretty shaky in defence, particularly in the flyhalf and midfield channels.
The Reds were deservedly the top team in the regular season, and although they faltered a little towards the end of it, they did still manage to win the games that counted. The dip in form seemed to be somewhat fatigue- and injury-related and the bye will have really helped in this regard, specifically having Digby Ioane and Anthony Faingaa returning to the backline adding some serious potency.
It feels like the Blues’ only real chance in this one is to keep it tight, put the Reds under pressure on their own ball and look to attack on the counter. That said, I think that whichever way the Blues play, the Reds with their amazing structure and discipline coupled with the artistic brilliance of Cooper and Genia, will win this game, one way or the other.
Reds by 7
Stormers v Crusaders
* in the interests of full disclosure I feel the need to declare that I am a diehard Stormers fan and have never ever picked against them in over 8 years of playing SuperBru ;-)
The Crusaders have made a habit of travelling to South Africa to play, and lose, Super Rugby knockouts over the past few years (3 out of the last 4) and although all of those matches were played against the Bulls, the current Stormers side has a lot in common with the Bulls sides of old. That said however, given that they haven’t actually played a home game all season, the travel, and playing away, might not be that much of an issue for them this year.
The Stormers finished second on the log off the back of incredibly disciplined and structured play with easily the best defence in the tournament. They did lose to what was effectively a 2nd string Crusaders side at Newlands earlier in the year, but they were missing Peter Grant whose importance to the Stormers can’t be overstated.
The Stormers should win the battle of the tight, the tackle and the breakdown, and the metronomic Peter Grant will kick all points that are offered up. McCaw is back, but he’ll be rusty and Carter isn’t nearly as effective on the back foot. The Stormers to win, possibly even comfortably (this could of course be a case of my heart, sporting a nice pair of striped blue tinted glasses, drowning out everything my head has to say. Sonny who?)
Stormers by 7