Super Rugby preview – Semi-finals

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

Both Vrede and JC are calling an away win in New Zealand and a home victory in the South African derby. The Crusaders’ should improve on what is an intimidating play-off record, and we’re sure that not many punters will disagree with that assumption.

The coastal clash at Newlands should be more tightly contested, although it is the Stormers who should win through and host the final at the same venue next week.

KEO.CO.ZA SUCCESS RATE
VREDE: 88/122 (72%)
JC: 91/122 (75%)

CHIEFS vs CRUSADERS, HAMILTON, FRIDAY 09:35

HOW CHIEFS CAN MAKE THE FINAL:
VREDE: The Chiefs were bested physically on attack and defence the last time these sides met in Hamilton, and they’ll have to improve significantly if they hope to oust the tournament’s play-off kings. They’ve selected their most abrasive pack to duel the Saders’ bruisers, who comprehensively out-muscled the Bulls’ heavies last week. There is significant beef and industry among their forwards, but they will have to produce their best, most cohesive and sustained effort in set (they were awful at the lineout when last they met) and general play to overcome their more refined counterparts. In this regard they’ll benefit from the absence of Kieran Read, who was immense in the aforementioned contest.

They must force the Saders to run from deep, or pressure their clearing kicks in a bid to force broken field situations. Pressing, accurate defence is essential. In general play, their backline’s success has been facilitated by the pack’s strength, and if the big fellas get a roll on, flyhalf Aaron Cruden has the ability to expertly conduct affairs. His eye for vulnerabilities in a defensive line is well known, but he has added impressive and intelligent distribution and a solid tactical and goal kicking game to his armoury. His defence hasn’t lacked either but he must brace for his sternest examination. Outside of him, Sonny Bill Williams will want a statement performance. His temperament is unquestionable, masterclasses in last year’s semi-final and final testament to that. Whether they are able to engineer the time and space for Williams and others on his outside will be decisive to the outcome.

JC: New Zealand writer Marc Hinton got it right when he referred to the Chiefs as Super Rugby’s ‘Moneyball Men’. There are few superstars in this squad, and the team that fronts the Crusaders will be more than just the sum of its parts. They do the basics very well, and what will help their forwards is that they’ve enjoyed a respite of two weeks while the Crusaders’ pack have just battled the Bulls. If their forwards can make an early physical statement, then Tawera Kerr-Barlow, Cruden and Sonny Bill Williams should make inroads into the Crusaders defence. I’ve always felt that Crusaders midfield is vulnerable, ever since Williams defected to the Chiefs, and Ryan Crotty and Robbie Fruean will struggle this Friday if the Chiefs’ inside backs receive front-foot ball. The Chiefs’ underrated forwards hold the key to success, as without a platform, their star-studded backline will battle to breach the visiting defence.

WHY THE CRUSADERS ARE A GOOD BET:
VREDE: Their vastly superior experience is key. The bulk of the Saders players have been through the mincer and have the mental aptitude for the big occasion, which cannot be said about the Chiefs. There is an incredible understanding of the game plan and roles within that game plan, with Dan Carter the fulcrum of their attack. He has steadily risen in influence since his return from injury and was impeccable against the Bulls in the quarters. He and Richie McCaw set the standard which others then pursue. They’ll do so once more to guide their side to the final.

JC: I have been waiting for the Crusaders to be exposed in the back row, but McCaw has surprised me with some masterful performances at No 8, and as a combination the loose trio has been effective against some of the more physical teams in the competition. Their tight five was massively influential in the demolition of the Bulls, and I suspect those five men will be at the heart of yet another play-off victory. Apart from their set-piece superiority, the Crusaders are the kings when it comes to the collisions, and to top it all, they are more than proficient in the dark arts of breakdown play. All in all, they’re a powerful and tactically astute team. I can’t see the Chiefs outplaying the Crusaders in a tactical arm-wrestle. The bad news for the Chiefs is that Carter’s radar is finally working after an early season malfunction, and I expect him to nail every kickable opportunity on offer.

VREDE’S CALL: Crusaders by 5
JC’s CALL: Crusaders by 8

Chiefs – 15 Robbie Robinson, 14 Tim Nanai-Williams, 13 Andrew Horrell, 12 Sonny Bill Williams, 11 Asaeli Tikoirotuma, 10 Aaron Cruden, 9 Tawera Kerr-Barlow, 8 Kane Thompson, 7 Tanerau Latimer, 6 Liam Messam, 5 Brodie Retallick, 4 Craig Clarke (c), 3 Ben Tameifuna, 2 Mahonri Schwalger, 1 Sona Taumalolo.
Subs: 16 Hika Elliot, 17 Ben Afeaki, 18 Michael Fitzgerald, 19 Sam Cane, 20 Brendon Leonard, 21 Jackson Willison, 22 Lelia Masaga.

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 Ben Franks, 2 Corey Flynn, 1 Wyatt Crockett.
Subs: 16 Quentin MacDonald, 17 Owen Franks, 18 Tom Donnelly, 19 Luke Whitelock, 20 Willi Heinz, 21 Tom Taylor, 22 Sean Maitland.

STORMERS vs SHARKS, CAPE TOWN, SATURDAY 17:05

HOW THE STORMERS CAN WIN:
VREDE: Everything rests on their kick-chase tactics and pressure defence. When allowed to settle into their groove, the Stormers have systematically and clinically suffocated their opponents, pinning them in their territory and forcing them to take risks. From there they’ve forced infringements and consistently profited from Peter Grant’s goal-kicking accuracy (30/31 penalties).

In these sides’ previous meetings this season, the Stormers failed to impose their will. This was primarily due to being forced to execute their game plan without a platform to do so, given the Sharks’ immense physicality in defence. Their primary strike runners must front against a defensive unit with the personnel to bully them if their confidence is fuelled. The Stormers haven’t exhibited the capacity to transition between approaches which makes it essential that their preferred method is on point. They also need to overcome what appears to be a propensity for mental freezes in knockout matches in front of their home supporters. They must be favourites, particularly since the Sharks have had a taxing travel schedule and demanding clash with the Reds. A fold, like the one against the Crusaders at this stage last year, would have serious implications for their psyche in knockout matches going forward.

JC: I’ve said it more than once over the past couple of weeks, and I’ll say it again; it’s incredible that the Stormers have come this far given the injury setbacks they’ve suffered over the course of the season. But that statement should not be misread as an excuse or a precursor to another play-off loss. The Stormers have coped admirably and their second- and third-choice players have made a stunning impact. What’s been particularly impressive about this side is the way that they have stuck to the plan, and managed to guts out some ugly wins. It will surely stand them in good stead for what will be another brutally physical encounter, and immense battle of wills. In the black and white corner is a side stacked with Springboks, but the Stormers have the more settled unit that has proven itself capable of outbullying even the most hard-nosed teams. Expect more rolling mauls and a collective refusal to concede to a defensive inch.

They should be able to hold their own at the collisions, and it is that 9-10-12 combination that should give them a much needed edge. Grant may not boast the greatest line-kicking game, but his temperament in front of goal has allowed the Stormers to win some tight clashes, and one that stands out was the 15-12 victory over the Sharks at Newlands this year. Jean de Villiers has a big responsibility not only as a leader, but as a midfielder capable of winning the collisions in midfield. It would have been a more interesting battle had Frans Steyn been eligible for this clash, but Meyer Bosman is short on confidence, and has been dominated by De Villiers in previous clashes. In recent years, De Villiers has proven himself to be a big-match player, and I expect he will take his game to another level this Saturday.

WHY THE SHARKS SHOULDN’T BE DISCOUNTED:
VREDE: They are one of the few teams with the tactical intelligence, calibre of players and defensive punch and discipline to beat the Stormers. They showed this at Newlands early in the campaign (a 15-12 defeat) and more recently in their 25-20 victory at Kings Park in May. Their response to the Stormers’ barrage of kicks was superb, which ensured they weren’t trapped deep in their territory for extended periods.

Furthermore, they were devastating with ball in hand, consistently crossing the gainline, which was central to their ability to score three tries. The responsibility for unsettling the Stormers’ defensive line in this manner once more will rest primarily with Willem Alberts, Bismarck du Plessis, Beast Mtawarira and Marcell Coetzee. Their halfback pair of Charl McLeod and Frederic Michalak have shown themselves to be adept at playing for territory, taking on the line, or setting the back division in motion – giving the Sharks an air of unpredictability. They’ll miss Pat Lambie and Paul Jordaan though, the duo possessing a skills range their deputies can’t boast. Still, they do have the white-hot JP Pietersen, who will be a threat if offered space and time to plot their demise.

JC: Nobody should discount the draining effects of travel. Taking this into account, the Sharks should look to replicate their most recent performance in Brisbane, and pile on the points in the first half. They will tire in the second stanza, and if the scoreline is still tight at that stage, the Stormers will be favourites to win. Indeed, the Stormers aren’t a side that’s enjoyed a great deal of success at chasing the game. If they’re well behind at half-time, they will be forced to change their game plan and play more expansively in an attempt to narrow the gap, and this will suit the Sharks. As seen last week, the Sharks are the masters in using turnover ball to score points. So if the Sharks enjoy a good first half, it will spell trouble for the Stormers.

Their scrum has been one of the best in the tournament, and will be favourites in this particular contest. They will want to use this platform to play the game at a lively tempo, and they certainly have the personnel to breach even the best defence. How the Stormers handle the surge after a Sharks scrum will be critical. Their defence has been excellent to date, but they must stall the Sharks’ momentum early in the movement. The Sharks will also be mindful of a tactic that has fractured the Stormers in the past: the tactical kick. A probe, grubber or even a high bomb could create scoring opportunities. It’s a big ask of Charl McLeod, who isn’t the most accurate kicker in the competition, and again the Sharks would have preferred to have had Steyn on board for this clash. But in Michalak, they have a wily international campaigner, and he represents the biggest danger and will ask the most questions of what is an impressive but not unbeatable Stormers defence.

VREDE’S CALL: Stormers by 7
JC’s CALL: Stormers by 6

Stormers – 15 Joe Pietersen, 14 Gio Aplon, 13 Juan de Jongh, 12 Jean de Villiers (c), 11 Bryan Habana, 10 Peter Grant, 9 Dewaldt Duvenage, 8 Deon Fourie, 7 Rynhardt Elstadt, 6 Siya Kolisi, 5 Andries Bekker, 4 Eben Etzebeth, 3 Brok Harris, 2 Tiaan Liebenberg, 1 Steven Kitshoff.
Subs: 16 Deon Carstens, 17 Frans Malherbe, 18 De Kock Steenkamp, 19 Don Armand, 20 Louis Schrueder, 21 Burton Francis, 22 Gerhard van den Heever.

Sharks – 15 Louis Ludik, 14 JP Pietersen, 13 Tim Whitehead, 12 Meyer Bosman, 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 Jean Deysel, 20 Jacques Botes, 21 Odwa Ndungane, 22 Riaan Viljoen.