JON CARDINELLI and RYAN VREDE analyse the key match-ups and pick the winners at the weekend.
After the first few rounds, we hailed the Sharks as the most balanced of the South African teams. While they did their best to prove us wrong in the middle of their campaign, they scraped together enough points in the final fixtures to win through to the play-offs. Unfortunately for them, their journey will end this Saturday.
JC and Vrede are tipping two home wins, with the Blues the favourites to beat a depleted Waratahs team in Auckland. The semi-finals should then see the Reds hosting the Blues in Brisbane, and the Crusaders travelling to their home away from home in Cape Town.
KEO.CO.ZA SUCCESS RATE
VREDE: 76/119 (64%)
JC: 82/119 (69%)
BLUES vs WARATAHS, AUCKLAND, FRI 09:35
VREDE’S CALL: The Waratahs were running hot coming into this match but I fear injuries to key players will undermine their challenge. Hard-running hooker Tatafu Polota-Nau’s gainline threat and scrummaging power will be sorely missed, as will the industrious scrumhalf Luke Burgess, whose ability to vary his play between darts around the ruck fringe and probing tactical kicks has been central to the Tahs’ success to date. Conversely, the Blues have named a relatively settled side, and one that has shown an aptitude to play finals rugby. There are concerns their capacity to play a territory-based game. I can’t see them kicking too often, and they will likely rely on a phase-based game to wear down the defensive line before unleashing their strike runners in the back division. To counter this, the Tahs would have to dominate the collisions and/or the breakdown, neither of which I believe they will manage. They also won’t impose themselves on attack given that they don’t have the personnel to win the tackle fight or boss the set phases. Blues by 10
JC’S CALL: This game is the Blues’ to win or lose. They have the personnel to dominate the forward exchanges as well as the men out wide to finish, but it will be interesting to see how they go about Friday’s game. They can’t afford to be cavalier against a side like the Waratahs, who despite their conservative reputation have scored the most tries in the competition. The Blues have shown that they can play attractive rugby after laying that forward platform and winning prime field position, and they will need to do this once more to guarantee passage to the semi-finals. They also need to avoid dropping their intensity in the second half, as their 2011 record will show that poor concentration has already cost them a few big results. The good news is that neither Stephen Brett nor Luke McAlister will be handed the kicking tee, with Lachie Munro preferred. Munro has done well in recent matches, and he will need to bring that accuracy through to this do-or-die clash. The captaincy of Keven Mealamu will also be a factor. Because there is no four-try incentive, Mealamu will ensure that the Blues build a substantial lead before cutting loose. Blues by 10
Blues – 15 Jared Payne, 14 Joe Rokocoko, 13 Benson Stanley, 12 Luke McAlister, 11 Lachie Munro, 10 Stephen Brett, 9 Alby Mathewson, 8 Peter Saili, 7 Luke Braid, 6 Jerome Kaino, 5 Ali Williams, 4 Anthony Boric, 3 John Afoa, 2 Keven Mealamu (c), 1 Charlie Faumuina.
Subs: 16 Tom McCartney, 17 Tevita Mailau, 18 Chris Lowrey, 19 Daniel Braid, 20 Chris Smylie, 21 Winston Stanley, 22 Sherwin Stowers.
Waratahs – 15 Lachie Turner, 14 Atieli Pakalani, 13 Ryan Cross, 12 Tom Carter, 11 Soseni Anesi, 10 Kurtley Beale, 9 Josh Holmes; 8 Dave Dennis, 7 Phil Waugh (c), 6 Dean Mumm, 5 Sitaleki Timani, 4 Kane Douglas, 3 Paddy Ryan, 2 John Ulugia, 1 Benn Robinson.
Subs: 16 Elvis Taione, 17 Jeremy Tilse, 18 Pat O’Connor, 19 Chris Alcock, 20 Hugh Perrett, 21 Brendan McKibbin, 22 Bernard Foley.
CRUSADERS vs SHARKS, NELSON, SAT 09:35
VREDE’S CALL: I’ve seldom seen a side replicate a defensive performance of the ilk the Sharks delivered at Loftus on successive weekends. Having travelled 11 000km to face the most complete side in the tournament, I believe the Sharks will struggle to do so. If they do, and I hope they do, it would be one of the great Super Rugby victories. Sadly, the odds are heavily stacked against this happening. I don’t believe their scrum will stand up to examination. This will offer the Christchurch franchise an excellent attacking platform, while the Sharks’ power deficiency here will dilute their potency on attack. The Saders’ threat lies in their adaptability – they are equally adept at playing an expansive game as they are a fairly pragmatic style. Blunting their ability to do so would require forward dominance and smart, accurate defence for 80 minutes. I fear fatigue will compromise the Sharks’ ability to do so. The Durban boys can, however, take heart from their performance at the gainline in the previous meeting at Twickenham. Bismarck du Plessis, Ryan Kankowski and Willem Alberts were all consistently effective in generating go-forward. The addition of Jean Deysel to that triumvirate should offer them even more punch here. Their woeful defence let them down then, and while I predict they will improve in this regard, and stay with the Saders for three quarters, their torturous travel schedule will take its toll in the final 20 minutes. The Saders are the masters of punishing a tiring opponent, and will deliver the killer blow in the closing stages of this contest. Crusaders by 10
JC’S CALL: Unless they’re serving Asterix’s magic potion in the changeroom before kickoff, the Sharks won’t be able to sustain their forward challenge. They have some impressive ball-carriers who have potential to dominate the collisions, but their failures at the set-piece will limit their impact. The Crusaders boast a fearsome scrum and Sam Whitelock gives them an excellent lineout option. Apart from a clinical attack they are a tough defensive unit capable of turning defence into offence. They’ve been particularly good at the counter-ruck, and if the Sharks’ heavies are slow to the breakdown or don’t send enough men in to secure the ball, they run the risk of a costly turnover. When it comes to decision making, the Crusaders also have the edge at halfback, with Andy Ellis the perfect foil to Dan Carter. The forwards and the halfbacks will be the difference in Saturday’s decider, as the momentum and opportunities they generate will allow the dangerous Crusaders backs to pierce the susceptible Sharks midfield. The visitors won’t go down without a fight, but it’s the Crusaders that will march on to the next round. Crusaders by 7
Crusaders – 15 Tom Marshall, 14 Sean Maitland, 13 Robbie Fruean, 12 Sonny Bill Williams, 11 Zac Guildford, 10 Daniel Carter, 9 Andy Ellis, 8 Kieran Read (c), 7 Matt Todd, 6 George Whitelock, 5 Sam Whitelock, 4 Brad Thorn, 3 Owen Franks, 2 Corey Flynn, 1 Wyatt Crockett.
Subs: 16 Quentin MacDonald, 17 Ben Franks, 18 Luke Romano, 19 Jonathan Poff, 20 Kahn Fotuali’i, 21 Matt Berquist, 22 Ryan Crotty/Brent Ward.
Sharks – 15. Patrick Lambie, 14. JP Pietersen, 13. Stefan Terblanche (c), 12. Meyer Bosman, 11. Lwazi Mvovo, 10. Frederic Michalak, 9. Charl McLeod, 8. Willem Alberts, 7. Jean Deysel, 6. Keegan Daniel, 5. Alistair Hargreaves, 4. Gerhard Mostert, 3. Jannie du Plessis, 2. Bismarck du Plessis, 1. Tendai Mtawarira
Subs: 16. John Smit, 17. Eugene van Staden, 18. Ross Skeate, 19. Ryan Kankowski, 20. Jacques Botes, 21. Adrian Jacobs, 22. Louis Ludik.