The longer you ponder Saturday’s pair of compelling qualifying finals, the more possibilities emerge. Put simply, each one of the four teams straining for a Super 15 semi-final spot have the credentials to force a win. According to many critics, the two home sides – the Crusaders of New Zealand and Queensland’s Reds – should capitalise on backyard advantage to keep the possibility of recreating last year’s final alive. However, only fools discount South African outfits. Both Bulls and Sharks seem hungry.
For neutrals, both matches will provide an enthralling insight into what lies in wait over the course of next month and beyond during The Rugby Championship’s inaugural outing. Both for ardent fans of each franchise and – most importantly – the players themselves, focus will not sway from the ferocious foreground. Here are some individual contests to whet the appetite:
Crusaders v Bulls – New AMI Stadium, Christchurch. Kick Off 0835 BST
Luke Romano v Juandré Kruger: It is always wise to start at the set-piece, so often the battleground that decides the tightest tussles in knockout rugby. This weekend in Christchurch will be no different and the lineout is sure to be hotly contested. However, these two locks offer far more than rock-solid jumping options. Unthinkably (given their huge talent) still juniors at international level with just four caps between them, these two 26 year-olds are intimidating in the loose as well. Romano, alongside engine room partner Sam Whitelock, epitomises the Crusaders’ fluidity in attack, marrying powerful carries with subtle handling when required. Kruger, more abrasive than artisan, has fiery Flip van der Merwe for company. A bona fide battle royale awaits.
Richie McCaw v Pierre Spies: Heady milestones of World Cup triumph and a century of All Black caps have come and gone. Even so, McCaw will not retreat shyly onto the sidelines. Just as well, really. This weekend he must fill the chasm of Kieran Read’s absence, playing out of position against opposing skipper Pierre Spies. The Bulls captain has a point to prove after failing to find his wrecking-ball best during the Springboks’ Test series win over England. Breakdown guile in the face of fierce physicality and lightning pace; here lies the key to the tie.
Robbie Freuan v JJ Englebrecht: Embarrassingly benched by Todd Blackadder for last weekend’s lacklustre win over the Western Force and curiously overlooked by New Zealand selectors, Freuan comes back into the fold with a platform to impress. Dan Carter will surely oblige, and launch his hefty outside centre into midfield crashes to establish gain-line ascendancy. Giving away almost 14 kilograms in weight, Englebrecht has his work cut out. Having said that, the former Western Province man has been a near ever-present in the Bulls’ march through the regular stage and, as a winger by trade, can stretch Freuan with speed.
Reds v Sharks – Suncorp Stadium, Brisbane. Kick Off 1040 BST.
Greg Holmes v Tendai Mtawarira: One well-worn truism of world rugby over the last decade has revolved around the lack of beef across Australian front rows. Mtawarira – not to mention the utterly monstrous pack behind him, bolstered by the hulking presence of Willem Alberts in the number four jersey – will be extremely excited. ‘The Beast’ has a golden chance to dismantle the Reds’ scrum and inject the Sharks with belief that can filter down from the trenches. Holmes, on the other hand, may be forced into damage limitation mode as he chases a Wallaby recall. Parity is the goal, but will be a huge task for the tigthead.
Ben Lucas v Freddie Michalak: Needless to say, Quade Cooper’s suspension leaves a gaping hole in the champions’ attacking armoury. However, Lucas can have faith in his ability to run a game, even in such a pressure cooker environment. When the Reds beat the high-flying Chiefs 42-27 back in March, Cooper’s understudy put in a great performance from stand-off that was punctuated by a try. Now, with the ever-reliable Mike Harris outside him, he faces an intriguing maverick in Michalak, who seems close to the peak of his impetuous powers. Shorn of Patrick Lambie and Frans Steyn though, there is onus on the Frenchman to incite structure – not his forte. The upshot of this one is anyone’s guess, but could determine which side will be booking flights to Cape Town.
Digby Ioane v JP Pietersen: And so to the flying machines, one a master of the bristling quickstep, the other more partial to a gliding waltz past would-be tacklers. Having stalled slightly this year, Ioane is due a big contribution so do not be surprised to see him popping up in midfield in pursuit of possession. As his incredible form for South Africa showed, the hosts cannot afford to offer Pietersen an inch of space from errant kicks or lax defence. A spark from either of these wingers could prove the game-breaker.
Which match-ups are you most looking forward to this weekend? Have your say below…