Super Rugby Quarterfinal Preview

Saturday 21st July

Crusaders vs Sharks

 

Date: Saturday, July 21
Venue: AMI Stadium, Christchurch
Kick-off: 19:35 local, 07:35 GMT, 09:35 SA Time
Referee: Mike Fraser (New Zealand)
Assistant referees: Ben O’Keeffe (New Zealand), Brendon Pickerill (New Zealand)
TMO: Shane McDermott (New Zealand)

 

Back in 2014 the Sharks beat the Crusaders in Christchurch.

The win came in a game where the Sharks were forced to play with 14 men for 64 minutes, after Jean Deysel was sent off for stamping of Jordan Taufua’s face. That 30-25 win was made even more remarkable when the Sharks were reduced to 13 men for ten minutes, when another incident saw a yellow card shown to Willem Alberts in the fourth quarter of the game.

That loss shook the Crusaders to their core. They still talk about it in the pubs and clubs of Christchurch.

It also gave the Crusaders extra motivation for the rest of the 2014 season and they extracted a modicum of revenge when they thumped the Sharks in the semi-final.

Different times, different players and different coaches in both camps, of course, so the past doesn’t have much relevance to this weekend’s quarterfinal, although both teams will probably use that 2014 game in their motivational talks and preparations for this weekend’s quarterfinal.

A week ago, the Sharks snuck into quarterfinal contention when they beat the Jaguares in a game where they lacked all sparkle and focus. They simply did not look the part of championships contenders, despite the massive possibility of a quarterfinal berth if they won the game.

I am not sure what more motivation they will need to up their game for the actual quarterfinal.

The Crusaders, in direct contrast, are in championship mode! They simply smashed the Blues last weekend, and have been building a head of steam heading into the playoffs. And the playoffs are a time when the eight-time title holders tend to thrive.

They are also fielding some of their more influential players, with the likes of Kieran Read and Ryan Crotty both available for this clash.

In the Sharks camp, Tendai “Beast” Mtawarira is set to start his 150th Super Rugby game, and is catching up with the retired Adriaan Strauss, who is the most capped South African Super Rugby player with 156 caps.

He will be motivated. That is the way of the Beast.

Neither team should be wanting in motivation, yet it is how they translate that motivation onto the rugby field that might be the biggest difference between the hosts and the visitors.

In New Zealand they are talking about increased motivation levels in the Crusaders’ ranks, especially among the pack, where they conceded a penalty try to the Blues in the second half. A rare occurrence indeed, and those ‘Saders forwards, we are told, showed their disgust in themselves as they launched a massive onslaught on the scrum-machine in this week’s practices.

In the previous two weeks the Sharks had everything to play for – a spot in the quarterfinals was at stake – extra motivation should have been a secondary thought. They should not have needed any more psyching up or whipping into some kind of fury. Yet they were lackadaisical and disinterested against the Stormers and deserved to lose that game.

And then they were almost clumsy, and wholly bereft of any quickness and ideas as they won a game against the Jaguares that the stats suggest should have gone the other way.

Now they have to travel across time-zones, oceans, and continents to play in New Zealand.

Will they be able to light that internal fire and produce what would equate to a rugby miracle by beating the Crusaders?

There is one small chink of light in the darkness of the Sharks’ motivational issues. They play their very best rugby when they are the underdogs. They play their very best rugby when nobody expects them to. They play their best rugby when they are released from the weight of expectation and nobody gives them a chance.

As they did when reduced to 14 men in 2014.

We will be watching this game, without any great expectation that the Sharks will win, our lack of expectation might just be what they need.

Team Talk:

Crusaders head coach Scott Robertson has made five changes to the side that defeated the Blues for Saturday’s quarter-final against the Sharks at AMI Stadium.

Robertson’s team includes three changes in the forwards and two in the backs.

All Blacks front-rowers Codie Taylor and Owen Franks return to the starting line-up at hooker and tighthead respectively, meaning Andrew Makalio and Michael Alaalatoa move to the reserves bench.

Scott Barrett also returns from a rest week to resume his role at lock, and Luke Romano will once again provide cover on the bench. The loose forward trio of Jordan Taufua, Matt Todd and Kieran Read remains unchanged this week, with Read having recovered from the wrist/thumb injury he sustained against the Blues.

Bryn Hall and Mitchell Drummond will again switch for this game, so that Hall takes the starting spot at scrum-half and Drummond moves to the bench. The only other change sees David Havili re-join the squad at full-back in place of Israel Dagg, who drops out of the match-day 23.

The Sharks have named an unchanged 23 for Saturday’s quarter-final against the Crusaders in Christchurch.

Coach Robert du Preez has understandably seen no need to tinker with his team at this stage of the competition after the Sharks squeaked into the playoffs with last weekend’s win over the Jaguares.

Discussion:

Sharks captain Ruan Botha says his team will look to dominate the Crusaders forwards during Saturday’s Super Rugby quarter-final in Christchurch.

He pointed out that the Crusaders conceded a penalty try from a 5m scrum against the Blues, and suggested that this is an area the Sharks will target.

Brave boy.

“One scrum doesn’t make a season – I think we’ve been pretty good apart from that one,” was ‘Sader’s coach Scott Robertson’s gentle response.

The enormity of the task facing the Sharks can be summed up by mentioning that the Crusaders have won 31 out of 34 matches in the last two Super Rugby seasons, while they are on 63 log points in 2018, 27 log points ahead of the Sharks, trailing back on 36.

Perhaps the single scariest number is the difference in points differentials. The Sharks have a negative points differential in 208, of minus 5.

The Crusaders boats a positive differential of plus 247.

Bluntly, if the Sharks were to win, it would represent the single biggest upset in the rugby world of 2018, perhaps even in the modern era.

If the Sharks are to have any hope of that upset, they will need to change their entire approach to the game. The stagnant will need to be replaced by sparkle. The staid will have to make way for innovation. Pedestrian will have to be replaced by sparkling pace. Tackling will need to improve beyond all measure. That regular season 85% tackle success rate will have to be ramped up to around the 95%. Pass accuracy will need to step up from 84% to the high 90’s. Handling errors need to drop to as close to zero as possible.

And the presence over the ball at breakdowns will have to be better than anything the Sharks have produced in 2018.

In essence, the Sharks will need to throw off the mental and physical shackles and play out of their skins. They need to transform themselves from below average to way above the best. They have to be better than their hosts in every single department.

And one wonders whether they have it in them to make all those changes?

The Crusaders are a side that plays superbly crafted rugby. They play with precision, power and a focus on relentless phase play.

The first 20 minutes will be crucial for the Sharks. This is the period where the Crusaders look to establish their dominance and to put the result beyond question. They force the issue in the set-pieces and play a focussed, direct game as they work to run up some numbers of the scoreboard. A thoroughly professional outfit, loaded with internationals, they could beat any side in the world, be it international or club. There are no less than 12 All Blacks in their starting lineup, which simply confirms the challenge facing the Sharks.

Nobody is giving the Sharks much chance, which is probably their best chance.

Prediction:

I love a good argument. Sometimes I will argue for the sake of argument, just to get under someone’s skin or for the thrill of the debate. I like to take the opposite view to anyone who has a big opinion. It forces me to think instead of just nodding and agreeing. That is just me.

But, just sometimes, I remain silent. Those are the moments when the other guy’s argument is so rock solid that I have no answer.

This is one of those occasions.

I cannot argue with the stats, the records, the form, the experience, the indicators.

I cannot minimise the burden of travelling to New Zealand.

I cannot argue with the bookies, one and all.

And I cannot argue with the pundits and tipsters across the rugby world.

The Sharks are in a whole heap of trouble.

The Crusaders by around 20 points.

The Teams:

Crusaders: 15 David Havili, 14 Seta Tamanivalu, 13 Jack Goodhue, 12 Ryan Crotty, 11 George Bridge, 10 Richie Mo’unga, 9 Bryn Hall, 8 Kieran Read, 7 Matt Todd, 6 Jordan Taufua, 5 Samuel Whitelock (c), 4 Scott Barrett, 3 Owen Franks, 2 Codie Taylor, 1 Tim Perry
Replacements: 16 Andrew Makalio, 17 Wyatt Crockett, 18 Michael Alaalatoa, 19 Luke Romano, 20 Pete Samu, 21 Mitchell Drummond, 22 Mitchell Hunt, 23 Manasa Mataele

Sharks – 15 Curwin Bosch, 14 Kobus van Wyk, 13 Lukhanyo Am, 12 Andre Esterhuizen, 11 Lwazi Mvovo, 10 Robert du Preez, 9 Louis Schreuder, 8 Daniel du Preez, 7 Jacques Vermeulen, 6 Philip van der Walt, 5 Ruan Botha (c), 4 Tyler Paul, 3 Thomas du Toit, 2 Akker van der Merwe, 1 Tendai Mtawarira.
Replacements: 16 Chiliboy Ralepelle, 17 Juan Schoeman, 18 John-Hubert Meyer, 19 Hyron Andrews, 20 Wian Vosloo, 21 Cameron Wright, 22 Marius Louw, 23 Makazole Mapimpi.