Jeff Wilson writes ...
Contenders battle for home-ground advantage
July 9, 2013
The Chiefs sorely missed Liam Messam against the Crusaders © Getty Images
We may know the top six teams for the play-offs now, but there's still so much to play for in this last weekend of Super Rugby. We should expect desperation from all play-off-bound teams.
Where does that desperation come from? The fight for the all-important home-field advantage. Teams want to play at home because the less travel they encounter, the better the opportunity to possibly win a Super Rugby title.
The only team that is guaranteed points is the Cheetahs, thanks to a bye.
The Cheetahs' fate is in the hands of the Queensland Reds, who have the most difficult assignment of playing the New South Wales Waratahs with key players recovering from that battle against the British & Irish Lions.
There's always bad blood between Queensland and New South Wales, so expect the Waratahs to put up a decent fight. The Reds will have some extra motivation, with Ewen McKenzie having one last opportunity to find Super Rugby glory. Expect Quade Cooper to want to make a statement about his non-inclusion in the Lions series.
The Bulls' fate is in their own hands as they head to Newlands in Cape Town to tackle the Stormers. The other five play-off-bound teams would probably like to see an upset of sorts, with the prospect of travelling to Pretoria and playing at Loftus having no appeal, I'm sure.
The Brumbies are safely guaranteed at the top of the Australian Conference. They now can focus on plotting their way through the play-offs, but they too may have the opportunity for a week off if the Bulls or Chiefs falter on the final week.
The Chiefs and Crusaders are looking for different things come the last weekend.
The Chiefs will be searching for some confidence after a disappointing and uncharacteristic performance in Christchurch last weekend. Their forward pack was under siege at set-piece, their work at the breakdown nowhere near as effective without Liam Messam and some doubts about their credentials to go back-to-back have now surfaced.
Their attack against a committed and organised Crusaders defence failed to make any impact. The team with so much talent has really struggled with this in 2013. But let's not forget their masterful coaching staff, the confidence they have previously shown and a desire to prove they are not one-year wonders. Expect to see a few changes to their side this week as coach Dave Rennie has put all players on notice.
The Chiefs have worked hard all season to achieve home-field advantage. Their performance this Saturday night against a Blues team with nothing to lose presents a passionate challenge in Auckland. The New Zealand Conference has thrived on local derbies and the Blues will want to be remembered for progress - the Chiefs for consistency.
Although the Crusaders may not achieve home-field advantage in the play-offs, this is a team that has the experience, character, talent and history to win away from home. If they were able to dismantle the Hurricanes this week they would then play the Reds in Christchurch. The Crusaders have been undefeated in Christchurch this season. Their defence has become their biggest asset and their attack is beginning to take shape. With their star All Blacks finding imposing form, it's hard to see them not being part of the Super Rugby final.
With their scrum rock solid, their lineout accurate on attack and potent on defence, their ability to put pressure on the opposition starts at every phase. If there's one team that's capable of going to Pretoria and winning, I believe it is this Crusaders side. Let us not forget Richie McCaw plays his first game in Christchurch this weekend and this addition to this talent-laden side might just give them the edge.
There's an air of desperation about all of these sides this weekend, so as each result is found enjoy the many changing fortunes that Super Rugby has to offer.
And one more thing ...
As for the coaching replacement in Australia, here are my thoughts.
Is Australian rugby in a state of crisis with its inability to win consistently on the biggest stages? The replacement of Robbie Deans puts Australia down a path to success.
The appointment of Ewen McKenzie, I believe, gives Australian rugby the opportunity to re-establish its own identity. There's no doubt Robbie faced a number of challenges as Wallabies coach, but he was given his opportunity. Now is the time for change.
I look forward to the best Australian players coming together and playing with the flair and skill we know they possess.
© ESPN Australia / New Zealand
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