SA will have two semi-finalists

MARK KEOHANE, in his Business Day column, says the Bulls’ Super Rugby campaign will end in Christchurch on Saturday but the Sharks have a good chance of beating the Reds.

For all the criticism about a flawed Super Rugby tournament format, a loss of momentum due to the three-Test international series, and an undoubted first and second division in the competition, it all came down to the last 40 minutes to determine the make-up of the six play-off finalists.

What a weekend it was, starting with the Hurricanes upstaging the Chiefs with a controversial TMO try in the last play of the game and the Brumbies imploding at home against a Blues team that have been abysmal all season.

The Brumbies’ defeat was the biggest shock and their last 80 minutes of the regular season proved costly in every sense.

Jake White’s overachievers started the match as Australian conference leaders and, given the opposition, as the probable hosts of one of the quarter-finals next weekend. When the siren sounded in Pretoria to conclude the regular season, the Brumbies were out of the play-offs; their heroics of the past five months blown away in 80 minutes.

It would have been an anxious wait for White, who would have expected more grunt in the South African derbies and possibly even an upset by the Cheetahs in Durban. It never happened as the Sharks got the win and the four-try bonus point, and anyone backing the Lions to do the dirty on the Bulls in Pretoria would have done so out of loyalty and not logic.

The Bulls were adequate in victory but even this was good enough to get the five league points and extend their participation in the tournament by a week. The side will crash out in Christchurch because there isn’t the belief in the squad that they can beat the Crusaders in New Zealand.

There never is such an issue when playing New Zealand’s champion side in SA and the Bulls, more than any other side, have crushed the Crusaders in recent play-off matches. Not this season.

For the Bulls, any title aspirations depended on hosting play-off matches. The Crusaders have always been the exceptions in being able to win away from home come play-off time. No other team in the history of the competition has mastered the demands of a short turnaround week, which has often necessitated flying across the world to play the final.

The Bulls certainly won’t change their history. They couldn’t do it when led by the magnificent Victor Matfield and strengthened by the imposing Bakkies Botha and the inspirational Fourie du Preez. They’ve no price this weekend and they will take a beating.

What it means is the Crusaders will play the Stormers in Cape Town and if there is one team that has always turned an away fixture into a home game, it is the Crusaders at Newlands. The Crusaders won twice last season, including an emphatic semi-final win.

The Stormers, rightly, will be nervous. It is the one side they didn’t want to face and it is the one side that beat them fairly comfortably this year, albeit in Christchurch.

The Stormers, league winners for the first time, have to be applauded for the achievement. It is quite something to win ugly nearly every week and if they should go all the way, no one in Cape Town will care how the victory was fashioned. Then again, it is a big if because at no stage in the season have the Stormers blown away the opposition and produced a performance that screamed champions.

Western Force captain Nathan Sharpe, in his final Super Rugby appearance, said the Crusaders were the form team of the tournament and the best his side had encountered. But if they are to add to their seven championship titles they’ll have to do it the hard way because home semifinals and finals have been rare in recent years, and they have stumbled in the final fortnight as much as they succeeded in the early years of the tournament.

The Sharks will be pleased to have avoided the Crusaders and there will be optimism that it is possible for them to beat the Reds in Brisbane and beat the Chiefs in Hamilton. Hell, they may even have to stay in New Zealand and face the Crusaders in the final. It is a possibility and what a story that would be if the Sharks won it.

That’s just one of the permutations and such a scenario would be a remarkable turnaround for the Sharks, who in the past few weeks have delivered in quality, in attack and in defence.

The Chiefs, to win the tournament, have to host the final and even then they’d have to beat the Crusaders. I don’t see it happening. They are not good enough to beat the Stormers in Cape Town.

The Reds, at home, are a menace but like the Bulls they turn to putty on the road.

Whoever wins in Cape Town in a fortnight will have one hand on the title but keep an eye on the Sharks. If they get past the Reds they could deliver something quite magnificent in the final fortnight.