Bulls, Sharks need to defy history

JON CARDINELLI looks at how the results of this week’s play-off matches will impact on South Africa’s bid for the Super Rugby title.

The Crusaders beat the Force last Saturday to book a play-off spot. It marks the 14th time the Crusaders have qualified for the knockout rounds in 17 years of Super Rugby. That they have won the title seven times is a well known fact, but perhaps there isn’t a similar appreciation for their overall record in these do-or-die matches.

Over the years the Crusaders have featured in 24 play-off matches, winning 18 and losing six. They’ve never lost a play-off match at home, winning on all 14 occasions. Home advantage is crucial at this stage of the competition, and the record books will confirm that the Cantabrians are (to date) unbeatable on their home turf.

Unlike the other five teams vying for the title, the Crusaders also have a good record on the road. They clearly aren’t daunted by the prospect of travelling to Australia or even to South Africa for a play-off, as last year’s semi-final win in Cape Town will attest. It is because of their great record home and away that they will always be a threat at this stage of the competition.

The same cannot be said of the South African sides. The Bulls won their first Super Rugby title in 2007, and did so away from home. However, they have never won a play-off match in Australasia, and so it’s another trend that will need to be broken if they are going to advance to the semi-finals.

The Sharks are South Africa’s most experienced team when it comes to play-off matches, having made 10 appearances. They have also managed to win Down Under (they beat Queensland in Brisbane back in 1996), but their overall record of games played in that part of the world is not encouraging. In seven play-off games in Australasia, the Sharks have lost six.

The optimist will look at the play-off they’ve won and declare it significant, as the Reds will host the Sharks this Saturday. It’s certainly not as big of a challenge as the one facing the Bulls in Christchurch, as the Reds aren’t nearly as intimidating when it comes to play-off scalps.

2011 saw the Reds winning a semi-final and final at Suncorp Stadium, but those victories were the first and second for the franchise as far as play-off successes are concerned. Prior to that, they had lost three semi-finals, two of which were played in Brisbane.

This will encourage the Sharks. A win this weekend would set up a semi-final showdown with the Stormers. The Cape side won 14 of their 16 league matches, but one of their two losses was to the Sharks.

A special effort would be needed to beat the Stormers at Newlands, but then history indicates that the Cape side has lost more play-offs than they’ve won at this iconic ground. Of the three semi-finals staged in Cape Town, the Stormers have only won one (against the Waratahs in 2010).

The Chiefs have lost some momentum in recent weeks, and unlike the Crusaders they don’t have a reputation for ruthlessness in the play-offs. They will host the highest-ranked qualifier in the semi-finals, and if the Sharks beat the Reds that would see the winner of the Crusaders vs Bulls clash heading to Hamilton.

The Chiefs have only appeared in the play-offs three times, the semi-final win in 2009 marking their sole victory. They will have home advantage in the semis, but the Crusaders have won 10 play-off matches away from home and even two titles. They also beat the Chiefs in Hamilton two weeks ago, so will hold no fear of travelling to Cowbell Country for a crunch match.

Nobody wants to come up against the Crusaders in the play-offs, which is why the Stormers, Chiefs, Reds and Sharks will cheer the Bulls on this Saturday. If the Bulls can achieve the improbable and win in Christchurch, it would eliminate the strongest title contender.

From a South African point of view, a Bulls win in Christchurch and a Sharks win in Brisbane would see three South African teams advancing to the semi-finals, thus increasing the chance of the title returning to this country.

If the Bulls can’t win on Saturday morning, the Stormers will be hoping that the Sharks can knock over the Reds. This would ensure the Stormers host the Sharks (the lowest-ranked qualifier) in the semis and avoid the Crusaders.

But there would still be a possibility of the Stormers hosting the Crusaders at Newlands in the final. It’s a venue where the Cantabrians would fancy their chances having won twice on that ground in 2011.

So while the Stormers may have the week off, they should watch this Saturday’s play-off matches with more than just keen interest.

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