MARK KEOHANE, in his weekly Cape Argus column, says it’s time to stop putting the Crusaders on a pedestal.
The rugby romantic would want the Crusaders to win this year’s Super Rugby title in the aftermath of the tragic Christchurch earthquake.
The fact that the Crusaders could win the New Zealand conference and finish third in the overall league standings without playing one home game says everything about the quality of the squad. They are a champion team and have been for the past 15 years in Super Rugby.
In Dan Carter and Richie McCaw they have arguably the two best All Blacks ever produced, in Owen Franks they have a gem of a prop, in Brad Thorn they have a player who defines professionalism and in Sonny Bill Williams they have a breath of fresh air to rugby union. They also have a fantastic coaching staff and they have a history of success, with Saturday’s semi-final their 10th in succession.
But I can’t believe so many are suggesting they are favourites to beat the Stormers given the ludicrous travel demands on any team asked to travel 11 000km in the week of a play-off match.
It is madness that Sanzar does not allow for a greater recovery period in play-off matches, just like it is madness that Sanzar allowed Saracens hooker Schalk Brits to play in Saturday’s play-off. Brits is a brilliant player and I’d want him in my team every weekend but there simply is no justification to the Stormers having selected him because of injuries to Duane Vermeulen and Pieter Louw.
Sanzar’s bosses should have forced the Stormers coaches to find a loose forward within the region to play. But the culprits are more the Stormers coaches than the idiots who govern Sanzar because (had ethics and playing within the spirit of the competition been primary considerations, as they should have been) Brits should never have been an option for a Super Rugby play-off match when he is contracted to English club Saracens and continues to play his rugby abroad. Every loose forward in this region has a right to feel disgusted, let down and worthless.
Brits will make a positive contribution on Saturday but it is not about Brits; it is about the principle that you nurture talent within your region and back the talent at the most critical moments of the season.
The Crusaders, traditionally, are the one team who has shown an ability to win away from home in the league stages, but their recent record in play-off matches has been as poor as any other away team. The Bulls smashed them in semi-finals in 2007, 2009 and 2010.
Just why so many put the on the pedestal they do is baffling and any Stormers player should find it insulting.
The Stormers, having had two weeks to prepare for a home semi-final, have to start as favourites, which doesn’t mean they have a right to win the game. They will have to be bloody good to beat the Crusaders and they will have to physically do the hard yards on Saturday.
They are a good enough team to do it and everything favours a home success. Defeat would be more an indictment on the Stormers than a tribute to the Crusaders.
We saw what a farce it was having the Sharks fly to New Zealand from South Africa, have one training session and then getting done by a better home side and a biased home referee.
We should expect the same on Saturday from a home team whose preparation has been ideal when compared to what the Crusaders have had to endure. Again there can be no justification for the appointment of four home officials for a play-off match. You have to take the possibility of home town bias out of it. All Sanzar’s clever guys have done is add to it.
The Stormers are a very good side, led by one of the game’s best loose forwards in Schalk Burger. The expectation from the home support should be one of victory.
The visitors were exceptional in beating the Stormers in their last visit to Newlands, but circumstances are different on Saturday.
It will be a brutal match, in which percentage rugby will prevail over the flash and dash of the league stages and if the Stormers are to show they have advanced as a unit in the last two seasons they simply have to cope with the expectation of a home win – and win.
I don’t believe it is fair on any team to travel 11 000km and play a semi-final three or four days later. Play-off rugby should be about a contest and too much is weighted against the team doing the long haul flight.
I have the Stormers to win … not because they are the better team, but because they are the home team.
– Listen to Mark Keohane and Cape Town based former Welsh international Scott Gibbs talking rugby on GoodHopeFM every Saturday between 8-9am.