Super 14 preview: Semi-finals

Jon Cardinelli and Ryan Vrede analyse the key match-ups and pick the teams to advance to the Super 14 final.

It’s play-off time, and although the 2009 semi-finals are short a South African team, things are looking bright for the Republic.

The Bulls should do the business at Loftus Versfeld setting up a final with either the Canes or Hurricanes, both of whom play a similar style of rugby. This weekend it should become evident why the Canes and Chiefs have never won a Super Rugby title and why the Bulls finished top of the log.

May the smartest play-off team win.

VREDE: 73% (66/91)
JC: 63% (57/91)

Round 14
VREDE: 5/7
JC: 6/7
Round 13
VREDE: 5/7
JC: 3/7
Round 12
VREDE: 6/7
JC: 6/7
Round 11
VREDE: 4/6
JC: 3/6
Round 10
VREDE: 3/7
JC: 4/7
Round nine
VREDE: 5/6
JC: 4/6
Round eight
VREDE: 5/6
JC: 4/6
Round seven
VREDE: 4/6
JC: 4/6
Round six:
VREDE: 3/6
JC: 3/6
Round five
VREDE: 4/6
JC: 3/6
Round four
VREDE: 5/6
JC: 5/6
Round three
VREDE: 4/7
JC: 3/7
Round two
VREDE: 7/7
JC: 7/7
Round one
VREDE: 6/7
JC: 2/7


Vrede’s call: Chiefs by 7
Why the Chiefs will win: I suspect JC will call a Canes win here, pointing to how their more structured approach and good tactical kicking will blunt the impact of the Chiefs’ back three. Oh don’t forget his favourite argument for a Chiefs loss – the absence of Brendon Leonard. The Chiefs have won the majority of their matches without Leonard. What nonsense. You only have to look at the boy’s call percentage to know that he’s clutching at straws. I’ll be sitting in the media box at Loftus next week watching Mils’ mob playing the Bulls. Why? Because for all the fanfare around their back division, the Chiefs have the most underrated pack in the tournament, and, with solid tactical kickers like Stephen Donald and Mils Muliaina they have the ability to play a percentage game if the match situation so requires. You don’t finish second on the points’ table if you are one-dimensional and the Chiefs are certainly not. Having said that I doubt they will stray from their fairly expansive approach, looking to their strike runners Sitiveni Sivivatu and Lelia Masaga to cause havoc out wide, or indeed in midfield, where we’ve seen them utilised in recent weeks. Expect the devastating triumvirate of Muliaina and the two wingers to torture the Canes if they kick poorly, while the collective will be in on the act if the Wellington boys slack in their ball protection at the breakdown. In their meeting a month ago, there was parity at the set phases, and there will be again in Hamilton, leading me to believe that the difference will be a score from turnover ball or an error in general play.

How the Canes could win: If they repress their natural penchant for attack and stay measured in their approach, the Canes could be marching on to Loftus. But they’re not wired that way and won’t. They’ll struggle to play the rigidly structured game that teams who have prospered against the Chiefs have employed, but if they resist the temptation to spin the pill wide early on, they will give themselves a chance. Like the Chiefs, they boast some outstanding runners in the backline and pose a formidable threat if fed with broken field ball. Chiefs centres Dwayne Sweeney and Callum Bruce will have to front against the Canes’ All Blacks midfield pairing of Conrad Smith and Ma’a Nonu, and if they can best the Chiefs at the breakdown it’ll improve their chances of victory exponentially.

JC’s call: Canes by 5
Why the Canes will advance: Interesting that you’ve opted to devote so few column inches to the midfield battle in your extensive ramblings, Vrede. Nonu and Smith are in form as a combination and as individuals, and are surely the biggest threat to the Cowbell Contingent in Hickville. Piri Weepu will play a Fourie du Preez-pivot role at halfback with Wille Ripia less a decision-maker, but Ripia’s overall kicking percentage confirms his value in both the tactical and goal-kicking departments. Arguments suggesting the Chiefs’ pack is formidable are flawed and based on the Super 14 middle stages when Aled de Malamanche was hot property. The Canes are the better balanced unit and capable of playing the smarter game. They’ll aim to keep it tight and physical as it takes the dangerous Chiefs’ back three out of the equation. Their fans may want them to run it and the neutrals may want an all-out attack, but after so many near Super Rugby misses, coach Colin Cooper will instruct them to play smarter.

How the Chiefs could steal it: It’s hard to think let alone play rugby when you have thousands of Hickville natives ringing cowbells from the first to last whistle. The Chiefs will miss Brendon Leonard, the All Blacks’ premier scrumhalf, for a number of reasons, but mostly because he takes so much pressure off Stephen Donald. The Chiefs’ pivot needs space to operate and will be targeted by the Canes’ loose trio, but he should be instructed to keep the game loose. The Canes could fall into the trap of neglecting structure, especially if they go to an early lead, and this is usually when the Chiefs do their damage. The vaseline-coated Sitiveni Sivivatu will be fed as much ball as possible, and the Chiefs will hope that Lelia Masaga rediscovers some form after a lackustre couple of games. A few injuries mean the Chiefs are short on quality, but at home they’re definitely in with a shout.

Chiefs – 15 Mils Muliaina (c), 14 Lelia Masaga, 13 Dwayne Sweeney, 12 Callum Bruce, 11 Sitiveni Sivivatu, 10 Stephen Donald, 9 Toby Morland; 8 Sione Lauaki, 7 Tanerau Latimer, 6 Liam Messam, 5 Kevin O’Neill, 4 Craig Clarke, 3 James McGougan, 2 Aled de Malmanche, 1 Sona Taumalolo.
Subs: 16 Hika Elliot, 17 Joe Savage, 18 Toby Lynn, 19 Serge Lilo, 20 Brett Goodin, 21 Mike Delany, 22 Sosene Anesi.

Hurricanes – 15 Cory Jane, 14 Tamati Ellison, 13 Conrad Smith, 12 Ma’a Nonu, 11 David Smith, 10 Willie Ripia, 9 Piri Weepu; 8 Rodney So’oialo (c), 7 Scott Waldrom, 6 Victor Vito, 5 Jason Eaton, 4 Jeremy Thrush, 3 Neemia Tialata, 2 Andrew Hore, 1 John Schwalger.
Subs: 16 Ged Robinson, 17 Jacob Ellison, 18 Bryn Evans, 19 Karl Lowe, 20 Alby Mathewson, 21 Jason Kawau, 22 Zac Guilford.


Vrede’s call – Bulls by 12
Why the Bulls will win: Call them what you want, but the Bulls’ low-risk approach that emphasises tactical kicking and set phase dominance is highly effective under the ELVs. Their log position after the league phase proves this, and there’s no reason to believe they will stray from what’s worked. In fullback Zane Kirchner, flyhalf Morné Steyn and particularly scrumhalf Fourie du Preez they possess superior tactical kickers to the Crusaders, while Steyn has shown that he will punish most infringements within his range. The halfback pair will be crucial to their success, as they will dictate the field position. If they are humming the Crusaders will struggle to match the Bulls. The other crucial facets of play will be the collision points and breakdown. The Crusaders, have built their success on a phase-based approach that seeks to deplete the opposition’s defensive line, before striking wide. If the Bulls can boss the contact and slow or pilfer their ball at the breakdown, they’ll kill the momentum the Saders rely heavily on. Expect Victor Matfield to rule the air, while the Bulls’ scrum has improved markedly in recent weeks, and they should have the beating of the Saders at both, paving the way for a comfortable victory.

How the Crusaders could win: I don’t think they will, but tactical naivety could see the Bulls fall to the defending champs. Richie McCaw will be the Saders’ key player and his potency at the breakdown will need to be nullified if the Bulls are to get any continuity in their play. Allowing McCaw to stifle the ruck recycle means the best defensive line of the four play-off sides will have time to reset, making breaking them down an even harder task. Poor tactical kicking could also put the Bulls under immense pressure. The Saders possess a couple of good broken field runners capable of hurting you on the counter-attack. Again, I can’t see anything but a Bulls win, but if they falter in the above-mentioned areas, the Saders could cause a massive upset.

JC’s call – Bulls by 7
Why the Bully Boys can’t be beat: If you’re going to take an Australasian team to Loftus Versfeld, it has to be a top one if you are going to get anywhere near a win. The Crusaders of 2007 fell short and that was when they still had all their All Blacks and the chosen one, Dan Carter. What chance do the no-names have against a Bulls team that show no sign of slowing? The Bulls will maintain the right attitude and continue to target their opponents’ weak points. Morne Steyn and Fourie du Preez will need to be accurate as in Leon MacDonald the Crusaders have one of the finest counter-attacking players in the game. They may opt to target the Saders’ inexperienced wingers with high balls, and when they’re in the Saders’ half they’ll use their backs to hit up through midfield. Their exceptional lineout gives them numerous options on attack, and as organised as the Crusaders are they’ll be kept guessing. Another advantage for the Bulls is their ability to sustain this pressure for 80 minutes, with two Bok forwards in Pedrie Wannenburg and Danie Rossouw waiting on the bench.

And why the Crusaders shouldn’t be written off: They’re the Crusaders, they’re programmed to win with minimal resources. Richie McCaw holds the key and will push the boundary at the breakdown, and I suppose a lot will depend on how referee Bryce Lawrence calls this area of the game. Wyatt Crockett could also cause a few problems for Werner Kruger at scrum time, but other than that the Bulls have no areas of perceived inferiority.

Bulls – 15 Zane Kirchner, 14 Akona Ndungane, 13 Jaco Pretorius, 12 Wynand Olivier,11 Bryan Habana, 10 Morné Steyn, 9 Fourie du Preez, 8 Pierre Spies, 7 Dewald Potgieter, 6 Deon Stegmann, 5 Victor Matfield (c), 4 Bakkies Botha, 3 Werner Kruger, 2 Derick Kuün, 1 Gurthrö Steenkamp.
Subs: 16 Chiliboy Ralepelle, 17 Rayno Gerber, 18 Danie Rossouw, 19 Pedrie Wannenburg, 20 Heini Adams, 21 Burton Francis, 22 Gerhard van den Heever.

Crusaders - 15 Leon MacDonald, 14 Jared Payne, 13 Tim Bateman, 12 Ryan Crotty, 11 Adam Whitelock, 10 Stephen Brett, 9 Andy Ellis/Kahn Fotuali’i, 8 Thomas Waldrom, 9 Richie McCaw (c), 6 Kieran Read, 5 Isaac Ross, 4 Brad Thorn, 3 Owen Franks, 2 Jason Macdonald, 1 Wyatt Crockett.
Subs: 16 Daniel Perrin, 17 Ben Franks, 18 Michael Paterson, 19 George Whitelock, 20 Fotuali’i/Tyson Keats, 21 Colin Slade, 22 Hamish Gard.

By Jon Cardinelli and Ryan Vrede