Crusaders bullish about semi-final mountain
May 17, 2010
The Crusaders beat the Brumbies to set up a mouth-watering semi-final clash with the Bulls © Getty Images
It's revenge time on multiple levels - and the Crusaders are relishing the prospect of Super 14 rugby's toughest challenge.
The seven-time winners face the defending champion Bulls in a stellar semifinal at Soweto on Sunday morning (3am NZT), with the top-qualifying South Africans sure to start favourites as they seek a third title in four years.
They are also chasing a 19th successive home win, although the soccer World Cup-enforced shift from their Loftus Versfeld fortress to the smaller Orlando Stadium in the sprawling township outside Johannesburg could remove some of the aura surrounding Victor Matfield's men.
In Pretoria, they have had the measure of the Crusaders in key matches in recent seasons. They dominated the 2007 semi-final there, powered away to win last year's semi-final 36-23 and scraped home 40-35 when the teams met just a week ago - courtesy of winger Francois Hougaard's controversial last-gasp try. If anything, that match - in which the Bulls were stretched from pillar to post but refused to break - will hand the Crusaders a reason for confidence in their ninth successive visit to the semis. As will momentum coming out of the final round of matches.
The Bulls caused a stir by opting to field their B team against the Stormers in Cape Town, having already secured the top spot. Not surprisingly they were spanked 38-10, gifting the Stormers second place and hosting rights for the other semifinal against the Waratahs on Sunday.
Meanwhile, the Crusaders produced their best rugby of the season, ending a three-match losing streak by overwhelming the Brumbies 40-22 in Christchurch. They employed a high-tempo game sure to be rehashed again in Soweto against a Bulls side who will be well rested but possibly out of tune following their week off. The style of their five-try win had Crusaders coach Todd Blackadder buzzing about the week ahead despite the rigours of a return flight across the Indian Ocean.
"The players can feel it too, there's a really good feeling in the side now and we're just getting stronger and stronger," he said. "Now the guys are looking forward to it. They're determined to go back and have another crack."
Fullback Colin Slade, one of several players discovering their best form late in the campaign sensed they could topple the Bulls.
"Champion teams of the past have always peaked at the right end of the season and it's very pleasing to see we're heading in the right direction."
Two key aspects will be countering the lineout presence of Matfield and adapting to the refereeing of officious Australian Stu Dickinson, with the Crusaders having been whistled off the park in recent weeks.
The Hurricanes won't partake in the playoffs for just the third time in eight years under departing coach Colin Cooper after a lacklustre 32-16 loss to the Waratahs in Sydney. The hosts were dominant in most forward facets and surprised by being the more sparkling out wide, with try-scoring doubles to winger Drew Mitchell and fullback Kurtley Beale sealing the fate of a side who had been unbeaten over the previous six rounds.
Hurricanes halfback Piri Weepu regretted a mid-season slump which ultimately lumped too much pressure on the players.
"We started off the way we wanted we but as soon as we got to South Africa we had a mishap. From then on it was try and fight our way back. We've played five great weeks of footy but it takes its toll," he said. "I'm one of the guys that didn't have one of the best games but I still felt when we were 23 points down we could still claw our way back into it."
On a black night, Hurricanes hooker Andrew Hore departed early with a dislocated shoulder which will impact on his All Blacks involvement - potentially ruling him out for the year.
None of the weekend's other matches had any bearing on the semi-final makeup. Competition entertainers the Reds ended a resurgent season in fifth place after holding off a Highlanders comeback to prevail 38-36 in Brisbane. First five-eighth Quade Cooper was at his scintillating best for the Reds while the Highlanders can at least be satisfied with their turnaround after trailing 24-3 at the break, picking up two bonus points which lifted them one spot for a 12th place finish.
One place ahead of them were last year's runners-up the Chiefs, who ended a poor campaign with a 30-20 loss to the Blues in Auckland. An exciting but error-ridden affair summed up the season for both sides, with the Blues ending level with the Bulls for the most tries scored - 47 - while moving one place past the Hurricanes for a seventh-place finish.
Other matches saw in-form South African sides the Sharks and Cheetahs notch wins, completing a clean sweep for the home teams in the final round. The Sharks beat the Force 27-22 while the Cheetahs crushed the hapless Lions 59-10, leaving the losers the only team in the five-year history of the Super 14 to fail to win a game.
While the Lions' dismal campaign might suggest that South African rugby has grounds for concern in terms of depth, it is the Kiwis who should be most worried given that New Zealand teams endured their worst Super 14 season on record.
For the first time since 2004, New Zealand's combined team points tally wasn't the best in the competition, with their teams averaging 32 points each. That pipped South Africa's 31.0 points each but Australia's four sides took the "national" prize with an average of 34.5 points.
With just the Crusaders qualifying for the semi-finals, it only takes a fleeting glance at competition statistics to assess where things started going wrong for the other New Zealand teams in particular.
Two of the most basic facets of rugby - goalkicking and throwing to the lineout - saw New Zealand players trail the field by a significant margin. New Zealand teams averaged a lowly 68.4 percent of their shots at goal, which compared poorly with the 74.5 percent from South African teams and 73.5 percent out of Australia. Only Highlanders fullback Israel Dagg averaged better than 75 percent of his shots, and he was bettered by six other players. The Crusaders were the seventh-most accurate team while the other four finished in the competition bottom five.
Lineout throwing will be another area of major concern for the All Blacks selectors, with New Zealand hookers recording a total of 41 not straight throws, comparing dreadfully with South Africa's 13. Injured Hurricanes rake Andrew Hore had the most with 10, while Highlander Jason Rutledge, Crusader Ti'i Paulo and Blues veteran Keven Mealamu also found themselves among the "leaders".
As usual, New Zealand players featured highly in the linebreak statistics, reflecting the open style they favour. However, high error counts and indiscipline were constant hurdles they struggled to overcome against more pragmatic opponents.
Hurricanes second five-eighth Ma'a Nonu was the most penalised player, being stung for 25 straight-arm offences. That was fractionally worse than a host of forwards but, alarmingly, the next-most penalised backs in the competition were pinged just eight times.
Not surprisingly, given their lack of ball, Chiefs flanker Tanerau Latimer led the season tackle count with 169, although two big-name New Zealand backs were credited with the most missed tackles - Blues first five-eighth Stephen Brett with 34 and Nonu with 31.
Relevant statistics from the 2010 Super 14 rugby regular season:
Country - South Africa 74.5 percent, Australia 73.5, New Zealand 68.4.
Teams - Sharks 79.3, Stormers 78.0, Waratahs 77.5, Brumbies 77.5, Bulls 75.2, Cheetahs 72.0, Crusaders 70.7, Reds 69.8, Force 69.3, Hurricanes 69.3, Blues 68.4, Highlanders 68.1, Chiefs 67.5, Lions 64.5.
Players (minimum 20 shots) - Matt Giteau (Brumbies) 83.6, Daniel Halangahu (Waratahs) 81.3, Peter Grant (Stormers) 80.8, Ruan Pienaar (Sharks) 78.7, Morne Steyn (Bulls) 76.3, James O'Conner (Force) 75.6, Israel Dagg (Highlanders) 75.6, Joe Pietersen (Stormers) 75.0
Other New Zealanders: Piri Weepu (Hurricanes) 73.7, Willie Ripia (Hurricanes) 72.4, Dan Carter (Crusaders) 71.2, Stephen Donald (Chiefs) 71.2, Stephen Brett (Blues) 68.4, Aaron Cruden (Hurricanes) 57.1.
Lineout throws not straight:
Country - New Zealand 41, Australia 30, South Africa 13
Players - Andrew Hore (Hurricanes) 10, Jason Rutledge (Highlanders) 9, Ti'i Paulo (Crusaders) 7, Pekahou Cowan (Force) 7, Keven Mealamu (Blues) 6, Stephen Moore (Brumbies) 7