Super Rugby 2017

Semifinals

Date: Saturday, July 29

Crusaders vs Chiefs

Venue: AMI Stadium, Christchurch
Kick-off: 19:35 Local Time; 07:35 GMT; 09:35 SA Time
Referee: Glen Jackson
Assistant Referees: Angus Gardner, Ben O’Keeffe
TMO: Glenn Newman

When I look at this semifinal I see two teams with contrasting game plans. The Crusaders have a power game based on forward dominance, and they can play the ball in close if they have to or want to. They do have some superb runners out wide. They play it up front until they feel they have the advantage, and then they play it quick and wide.

The Chiefs are a different prospect altogether. They look to move the ball around and attack at every opportunity. They can play it “ugly” when the situation demands it, but their default option is to go running with the ball in hand.

Despite their penchant for playing forward oriented rugby, the Crusaders are among the top three teams in terms of carries, meters made, clean breaks and defenders beaten. They have also averaged the most possession of all the teams in Super Rugby. The Chiefs are not far behind on the carries, meters made, and clean breaks/defenders beaten stakes. They are in the top eight for all those categories, and in the top three for offloads.

However, the Chiefs do have some really worrying stats too. They are the worst handling team in the entire competition, with 505 Handling Errors! They are second on the list for Most Penalties conceded too, with 106 of them. They have also seen 7 yellow cards.

This game is offering some interesting individual confrontations.

Richie Mo’unga vs Aaron Cruden

Richie Mo’unga, perhaps, has the inside track on this one. His match-day squad contains 10 All Black forwards and that ensures that he will be playing off the front-foot most of the afternoon. Cruden is perhaps quicker footed and better at exploiting chances, but he may have to do it off the back foot this week. This might also be Aaron Cruden’s last game in New Zealand as he heads off to join Montpellier in France.

Brodie Retallick vs Sam Whitelock

Sam Whitelock has gained enormous stature as a player and a leader in 2017 to the point where he has been hailed as the best lock forward in New Zealand – yet he comes up against the man who has long been regarded as the world’s premier lock by many, Brodie Retallick. In 2017 Retallick has had his ups and downs, but there have been more ups than downs. Watching the duo square off against each other is something to look forward to.

Sam Cane vs Matt Todd

Matt Todd has been a consistent campaigner in the Crusaders pack, and there are many that suggest he should be the starting flank for the All Blacks ahead of Sam Cane.

Cane has evolved into a powerhouse defender; his upper body strength and leg drive making many powerful dominating tackles. It will be interesting!

The Chiefs have two changes to the run-on side that defeated the Stormers 17-11 in that spirited Cape Town quarter-final contest last weekend.

Midfielder Charlie Ngatai returns from an ankle injury to start at inside centre, with veteran utility back Stephen Donald dropping to the bench. Tim Nanai-Williams is promoted from the reserves to start on the right wing. This means that Solomon Alaimalo drops out of the match-day squad.

Crusaders head coach Scott Robertson has named the same match-day squad that won the winter water festival over the Highlanders last week.

Prediction: This game revolves around the powerhouse precision of the Crusaders against the unpredictable running and pace of the Chiefs.
The Chiefs also have had another tough travel schedule, similar to that schedule that sunk them last year.

History tells us that the Chiefs have beaten the Crusaders in both their previous semifinal meetings. But it also tells us that the Crusaders have never lost a playoff fixture at home.

I have to go with the Crusaders to win, especially with home ground advantage.

Teams:

Crusaders: 15 David Havili, 14 Israel Dagg, 13 Jack Goodhue, 12 Ryan Crotty, 11 Seta Tamanivalu, 10 Richie Mo’unga, 9 Bryn Hall, 8 Kieran Read, 7 Matt Todd, 6 Jordan Taufua, 5 Sam Whitelock (c), 4 Scott Barrett, 3 Owen Franks, 2 Codie Taylor, 1 Joe Moody

Replacements: 16 Ben Funnell, 17 Wyatt Crockett, 18 Michael Alaalatoa, 19 Luke Romano, 20 Pete Samu, 21 Mitchell Drummond, 22 Mitchell Hunt, 23 George Bridge

Chiefs: 15 Damian McKenzie, 14 Tim Nanai-Williams, 13 Anton Lienert-Brown, 12 Charlie Ngatai, 11 James Lowe, 10 Aaron Cruden (cc), 9 Tawera Kerr-Barlow, 8 Michael Leitch, 7 Sam Cane (cc), 6 Liam Messam, 5 Brodie Retallick, 4 Mitchell Brown, 3 Nepo Laulala, 2 Nathan Harris, 1 Kane Hames

Replacements: 16 Liam Polwart, 17 Aidan Ross, 18 Atu Moli, 19 Dominic Bird, 20 Lachlan Boshier, 21 Finlay Christie, 22 Stephen Donald, 23 Shaun Stevenson

Lions v Hurricanes

Venue: Ellis Park, Johannesburg
Kick-Off: 14:30 Local Time; 12:30 GMT
Referee: Jaco Peyper
Assistant Referees: Marius van der Westhuizen, Rasta Rasivhenge
TMO: Marius Jonker

Last year the Stormers reached the Super Rugby quarterfinals without having to test themselves against any of the five New Zealand based franchises. The strangeness of Super Rugby’s fixture list and conference system worked to their advantage in gaining a home quarter-final.

And then it sunk them without trace.

They were totally unprepared for the intensity and pace their opponents from New Zealand, the Chiefs, brought to the quarterfinal.

This year the Lions have progressed to the semi-final stage, without facing a single team from New Zealand. Without a doubt, they will be better prepared for the challenge that the Hurricanes bring to Ellis Park than the Stormers were for the Chiefs a year ago. The Lions will have learned from their own experiences in 2016, and they will have absorbed some of the lessons handed out to the Stormers in 2016.

But will they be fully prepared for the pace and intensity of the Hurricanes?

No-one doubts or questions the team’s ability. But one has to question their preparation. Are they really ready for the challenge?

They do have that one very important advantage, called Ellis Park. Home ground advantage counts! In the 22-year history of the playoffs, teams have flown from New Zealand to South Africa to play 11 times, with four wins and seven losses.

And playing at altitude after making the long-haul trip to South Africa, after the hop over to Canberra for last week’s game against the Brumbies might just be the Hurricanes Achilles Heel.

The Lions have some of the dice loaded in their favour. Their pack of forwards is probably stronger and a better unit than that of the Hurricanes. They also have some depth off the bench amongst the tight five.

When the Cane’s have lost this year, it has been when they have been beaten in the contact situations and on the ground. The Crusaders did it, the Chiefs did it, and the Lions have the men to do it too. And they have altitude and Ellis Park.

The Hurricanes, however, have some pretty heavily loaded dice of their own. The Barrett brothers are two of the game breakers in their lineup, and the combatitive TJ Perenara will do everything he can to rattle Ross Cronje and Elton Jantjies. Especially Elton…..

Both teams like scoring tries, while the Lions have conceded the least number of tries, despite having a pretty average tackle success rate of 85%. However, the Hurricanes actually have a better defensive record. Their tackle success rate is 88%.

All the evidence from this season so far suggests that the Lions are a strong team despite not having had a run against a New Zealand outfit. They made hard work of the Sharks last weekend, but the Hurricanes didn’t have it easy in their quarterfinal either.

The Lions haver won 14 in a row at Ellis Park, turning it into one of the most secure fortresses in Super Rugby. The last visiting team to win there, funnily enough, was the Hurricanes in 2016, who are back in town this weekend.

This game also provides for some interesting individual match-ups:

Malcolm Marx vs Dane Coles.

Coles will start his 100th game for the Canes, and has filled the #2 jersey for the All Blacks with aplomb, except when out injured. Marx is the new kid on the block, fighting to gain a reputation and to secure the Springbok hooking berth. They will probably face off against later this year.

Beauden Barrett vs Elton Jantjies.

Two playmakers who bring so much to the game when going forward. Barrett has, however, shown that he can play off the back foot too. Questions about Elton Jantjies’ Big Match Temperament persist. Will he answer those questions on Saturday??

Ardie Savea vs Jaco Kriel

Technically, they are two different flankers, a six and a seven, but both have superb ball carrying skills and ability. Both are superb support runners linking with their backs. Kriel is perhaps superior to Savea on the ground, but… It is going to be interesting.

Dane Coles’ return at hooker is one of two changes to the Hurricanes starting side with the competition’s leading try scorer Vince Aso reclaiming his place at centre in a reshuffled backline.

Coles will become the eleventh player to achieve 100 caps for the Hurricanes.

Coles replaces Ricky Riccitelli in an otherwise unchanged forward pack, with Riccitelli dropping to the bench.

The return of Aso from injury sees Julian Savea move to the reserves at the expense of veteran Cory Jane.

Jordie Barrett goes back to full-back in place of Nehe Milner-Skudder, who shifts to the right wing with Wes Goosen switching sides to start in the No 11 jersey previously held by Savea.

The Lions have named an unchanged side for their Super Rugby game against the Hurricanes as they look for a win that seal a home final.

Prediction: Oh Boy, how I would like to see the Lions win this one and host a home final… But I worry that their lack of exposure to the New Zealand franchises will hurt them this week.

Their somewhat iffy game against the Sharks a week ago, and their lack of focus since Warren Whiteley’s injury concerns me. (And then there is the Elton Factor!)

I think the Hurricanes are in better form than the Lions at the moment, and they will edge this one in Johannesburg, but it will be very close.

Teams:

Lions: 15 Andries Coetzee, 14 Ruan Combrinck, 13 Lionel Mapoe, 12 Harold Vorster, 11 Courtnall Skosan, 10 Elton Jantjies, 9 Ross Cronje, 8 Ruan Ackermann, 7 Kwagga Smith, 6 Jaco Kriel (c), 5 Franco Mostert, 4 Andries Ferreira, 3 Ruan Dreyer, 2 Malcolm Marx, 1 Jacques van Rooyen

Replacements: 16 Akker vd Merwe, 17 Corne Fourie, 18 Johannes Jonker, 19 Lourens Erasmus, 20 Cyle Brink, 21 Faf de Klerk, 22 Rohan Janse van Rensburg, 23 Sylvian Mahuza

Hurricanes: 15 Jordie Barrett, 14 Nehe Milner-Skudder, 13 Vince Aso, 12 Ngani Laumape, 11 Wes Goosen, 10 Beauden Barrett, 9 TJ Perenara, 8 Brad Shields, 7 Ardie Savea, 6 Vaea Fifita, 5 Sam Lousi, 4 Mark Abbott, 3 Jeff To’omaga-Allen, 2 Dane Coles (c), 1 Ben May

Replacements: 16 Ricky Riccitelli, 17 Chris Eves, 18 Loni Uhila, 19 Reed Prinsep, 20 Callum Gibbins, 21 Te Toiroa Tahuriorangi, 22 Otere Black, 23 Julian Savea