Super Rugby preview – Qualifiers

JON CARDINELLI and RYAN VREDE analyse the key match-ups and pick the winners at the weekend.

The boys have both picked the Sharks as South Africa’s best hope of progression this weekend, with Cardinelli calling it close in Christchurch while Vrede believes the Bulls will take a proper beating. It isn’t often they hope they’re wrong, but the Bulls call is one such occasion.

KEO.CO.ZA SUCCESS RATE
VREDE: 86/119 (72%)
JC: 88/119 (74%)

CRUSADERS vs BULLS, CHRISTCHURCH, SATURDAY 09:35

WHY THE CRUSADERS SHOULD WIN:
JC: When it comes to the Super Rugby final series, you don’t want to play against the Crusaders. They haven’t lost a play-off in Christchurch in the tournament’s 17-year history, and boast an overall play-off record of played 24, won 18. The great Bulls side of the past decade that included Victor Matfield and Fourie du Preez failed to win a knockout match in New Zealand, so it would be unfair to expect more from what is a plucky yet inferior 2012 outfit. By comparison, the Crusaders side is stacked with World Cup-winning All Blacks, many of whom have featured in several successful Super Rugby campaigns. The Crusaders will rely on their scrum to provide good set-piece ball, and their multiskilled forwards to set the tempo with some ground-gaining carries and momentum-perpetuating offloads. Andy Ellis and Dan Carter will control the game, marshalling their forwards and midfielders into holes or into positions to win territory. On the back of a powerful showing, these halfbacks will also look to kick for field position, although I can’t see them kicking for touch too often. The Bulls will be under pressure up front and this will impact on the kicking game of their own halfbacks. The Crusaders are a clinical and pragmatic side, but they also have the players to punish poor kicks. The Bulls defence hasn’t been as solid as in previous seasons, and they will be susceptible to the counter-attack.
VREDE: The Bulls have never publicly lamented the impact of the loss of a clutch of vastly experienced players at the end of 2011, but their absence will be telling in Christchurch. Victor Matfield and Fourie du Preez in particular have been at the heart of the tactical besting of the Crusaders in recent years and their absence will be most sorely missed. The Bulls simply don’t have the calibre of personnel to defy their underdog status. You already need a handful of really special players to beat them on your home patch, and how more arduous a task it will be without players of that ilk and in a city where the hosts have a formidable record. The Bulls haven’t fronted physically against the elite sides this season, and there is nothing to suggest they will oust a world-class pack in general play or at scrum time. The latter has been the Bulls’ Achilles heel (they lead the tournament in scrum penalties conceded) and Dan Carter won’t be generous if given kickable opportunities from infringements. The Bulls have been outstanding at contesting lineouts but the Crusaders will limit their opportunities here by kicking infield. The seven-time champions will build their victory on slick execution of a very simple game plan that rests on territorial gains through tactical kicks and dynamic and precise attacking play when in scoring positions. Expect them to target the 10-12-13 channels, the latter especially vulnerable given that JJ Engelbrecht is still learning the defensive demands of the position at Super Rugby level. The Bulls won’t be able to stifle their attacking momentum, and I foresee a convincing defeat for them.

HOW THE BULLS CAN SCORE AN UPSET:
JC: It’s obvious isn’t it? The Bulls need to fight and scrap like never before. The Rebels managed to shock the Crusaders earlier this season, and that will give the Bulls hope. The Crusaders are always a different prospect in the play-offs, but the Bulls will view that shaky showing against the Rebels as a sign that the Cantabrians aren’t completely invincible. They won’t have a price at the scrums, but the Bulls lineout should dominate and they must use this possession wisely. We could see a lot of mauling from the visitors, but we should also see plenty of kicking. Morné Steyn and Francois Hougaard haven’t been on song, but they need to be accurate on this occasion. Precision kicking will allow men like Bjorn Basson to compete in the air, and in this area Basson is on a par with the All Blacks’ Cory Jane. But even if the Bulls do work themselves into good field positions, they will need to convert chances into points. Will the real Morné Steyn stand up? At the other end, Carter will convert all points on offer. Steyn will need to show the goal-kicking temperament that has characterised his career prior to the 2012 season if the Bulls are going to advance to the semis.
VREDE: This rests on their primary strike runners producing a performance they have not yet managed. Pierre Spies needs to set the standard at the gainline. He has been a peripheral figure in games of this magnitude too many times. It is time for a statement exhibition. Jacques Potgieter’s ability to boss the tackle fight will be central to any potential success, as will that of Chiliboy Ralepelle, Flip van der Merwe, Juandre Kruger and Wynand Olivier. If they manage this they will have space to manoeuvre and their kicking game will be amplified. This will afford them opportunities to turn the Saders’ back three or put them under pressure with bombs, which they are excellent at contesting. From there they can force penalties and turnovers (they have been clinical at scoring from the latter).

JC’S CALL: Crusaders by 9
VREDE’S CALL: Crusaders by 15

Crusaders – 15 Israel Dagg, 14 Adam Whitelock, 13 Robbie Fruean, 12 Ryan Crotty, 11 Zac Guildford, 10 Dan Carter, 9 Andy Ellis, 8 Richie McCaw (c), 7 Matt Todd, 6 George Whitelock, 5 Samuel Whitelock, 4 Luke Romano, 3 Owen Franks, 2 Corey Flynn, 1 Wyatt Crockett.
Subs: 16 Quentin MacDonald, 17 Ben Franks, 18 Tom Donnelly, 19 Luke Whitelock, 20 Willi Heinz, 21 Tom Taylor, 22 Sean Maitland.

Bulls - 15 Zane Kirchner, 14 Akona Ndungane, 13 JJ Engelbrecht, 12 Wynand Olivier, 11 Bjorn Basson, 10 Morné Steyn, 9 Francois Hougaard, 8 Pierre Spies (c), 7 Jacques Potgieter, 6 Dewald Potgieter, 5 Juandre Kruger, 4 Flip van der Merwe, 3 Werner Kruger, 2 Chiliboy Ralepelle, 12 Dean Greyling.
Subs: 16 Willie Wepener, 17 Frik Kirsten, 18 Deon Stegmann, 19 Wilhelm Steenkamp, 20 Jano Vermaak, 21 Louis Fouché, 22 Francois Venter.

REDS vs SHARKS, BRISBANE, SATURDAY 11:40

WHY THE REDS SHOULD WIN:
JC: Much depends on the outcome of the Reds’ appeal against Quade Cooper’s suspension. At the time of writing, the Reds were still umming and ahhing about a possible appeal, but there’s little doubt that Cooper would make a massive difference to that Reds side. He was the heartbeat of the team in 2011, that is his attacking play allowed them to capitalise on terrific forward momentum, and together with Will Genia, he out-kicked every other side tactically. The Reds haven’t looked as potent without Cooper at No 10 this season, although home advantage will count for plenty in a play-off match. The team has started to peak at the right time in the tournament, and after winning both their play-off matches, as well as the title, at Suncorp Stadium last year, the Reds will believe they can repeat the feat. They also have a great goal-kicker in Mike Harris, whose boot has won some close encounters, including the second Test against Wales in June.
VREDE: I agree with Cardinelli in as much as the Reds’ success last season rested heavily on the tactical kicking excellence and intelligence of Quade Cooper and Will Genia. They simply haven’t replicated that this season in Cooper’s absence and this reflects in their inconsistency. It is crucial to note that they only made the play-offs because of the weakness of the Australian conference (they have 58 points, as many as the seventh-placed Brumbies). Home advantage will aid them, but it won’t plaster over the numerous deficiencies in their game. Still they are a competent side with combative forwards and backs with game-breaking qualities. If they can match the Sharks’ heavies they’ll be well placed to win through to the semi-final.

HOW THE SHARKS CAN SCORE AN UPSET:
JC: Cooper’s inclusion would change the complexion of this match, but I think it’s more likely that he won’t be available and the fact will give the Sharks a sniff. The Reds aren’t easy to beat in Brisbane, but the Sharks have won a play-off in this city before (1996), and of all the South African sides, the Sharks are the only team to have won a knockout game Down Under. Their victory against the Reds earlier in the season will give the Sharks confidence, as will the return of key Springboks Willem Alberts and Bismarck du Plessis to the starting side. The Sharks will dominate the scrums as well as the collisions. They will need to be accurate in clearing ball-poachers like Liam Gill and Beau Robinson away from the ruck, but if they manage to win the physical battle, this task will be easier than most suspect. The Reds may have a sharpshooter in Harris, but the Sharks have Freddie Michalak, who boasts an 81% success rate in front of goal. This match is set to be more closely contested than the play-off in Christchurch, but I feel that in the end the Sharks will edge it thanks to the efforts of their robust pack.
VREDE: This will hinge on the brutality in contact on attack and defence that Bismarck du Plessis, Beast Mtawarira, Marcell Coetzee and Willem Alberts can offer them. The Sharks’ cause is undermined by not having Alberts at blindside flank, but they will ensure he gets his hands on the ball as often as possible on attack. Du Plessis tends to elevate himself for occasions like these, while Mtawarira’s industry, power and BMT will be an asset. The quartet’s defensive prowess is crucial as well. Du Plessis has consistently shown himself to be a bruising defender and competent scavenger and his efforts will need to be supplemented by a similar effort from the aforementioned and indeed the team at large. Success at the gainline will allow the Sharks’ halfback pair the space and time they require to plot the Reds’ demise. Their outside backs can expect to see plenty of ball, with JP Pietersen running white-hot at present. They’ll miss Pat Lambie’s composure and all-round skill at fullback, but I don’t think this will be terminal to their ambitions.

JC’S CALL: Sharks by 6
VREDE’S CALL: Sharks by 7

Reds – 15 Luke Morahan, 14 Dom Shipperley, 13 Anthony Faingaa, 12 Mike Harris, 11 Digby Ioane, 10 Ben Lucas, 9 Will Genia (c), 8 Scott Higginbotham, 7 Liam Gill, 6 Jake Schatz, 5 Adam Wallace-Harrison, 4 Rob Simmons, 3 James Slipper, 2 Saia Faingaa, 1 Greg Holmes.
Subs: 16 James Hanson, 17 Ben Daley, 18 Radike Samo, 19 Beau Robinson, 20 Jarrad Butler, 21 Nick Frisby, 22 Ben Tapuai.

Sharks – 15 Louis Ludik, 14 JP Pietersen, 13 Paul Jordaan, 12 Tim Whitehead, 11 Lwazi Mvovo, 10 Frederic Michalak, 9 Charl McLeod, 8 Ryan Kankowski, 7 Marcell Coetzee, 6 Keegan Daniel (c), 5 Anton Bresler, 4 Willem Alberts, 3 Jannie du Plessis, 2 Bismarck du Plessis, 1 Tendai Mtawarira.
Subs: 16 Craig Burden, 17 Wiehahn Herbst, 18 Steven Sykes, 19 Jacques Botes, 20 Cobus Reinhach, 21 Meyer Bosman, 22 Odwa Ndungane.