Sharks will be doubting themselves
July 23, 2014
Dan Carter rejuvenated, ready to fire
The Sharks failed in 10 matches over 18 years to beat the Crusaders in Christchurch before shaking the hoodoo earlier this season; can they do it twice in one season? That is what it will take if the Sharks are to play in the Super Rugby final next week.
In deciding the semi-finalists, it was a week of so close yet so far for the Chiefs, against the Brumbies, and the Highlanders against the Sharks. I thought the Chiefs were beaten by the better side; as much as they finished close they didn't deserve to win a match in which the difference was provided courtesy of the yellow cards, both of which had an impact on the game for the Chiefs.
Brumbies 32-30 Chiefs (Australia only)%]
The Brumbies scored almost straight away when Tim Nanai-Williams went off, and equally the sin-binning of Henry Speight had an immediate impact. I thought Speight's sin-binning was harsh: he was the tackler and got to his feet to have a crack at the ball, but he was penalised for losing his feet only after a Chiefs player jumped on top of him. His absence got the Chiefs back into the game, as they scored down his wing.
The Chiefs had their opportunities, and it was close in the end, but the Brumbies do look like a side that will be hard to beat in the Australian derby even though I think the title has a Sydney feel to it.
I'm sure all Australians are delighted they are going to have a team in the final regardless of who wins, and I think that is worrying for the Kiwis and South Africans who can see that Australian rugby is on the rise. Having two teams, with one assured of making the final, is something we have to note because we've been saying all year that the Australians are looking strong.
I thought the Highlanders, again, were brave. They've gone a long way this year, and have gone above expectations but their performance against the Sharks in Durban goes to show you have to nail your set-pieces when you get down to the sharp end of the competition; the set-piece is your bread and butter - that's what the game is based around - and you can't be as frail as they were.
Sharks 31-27 Highlanders (Australia only)%]
The Crusaders know what is coming their way at AMI Stadium in Christchurch this weekend: the Sharks' set-piece is the cornerstone of their game, but it has also always been the Crusaders' catch cry. The Sharks will really test their set-piece, and their scrum is as good as you're going to get, but the Crusaders will be up to that; the Crusaders always go back to basics, and they pride themselves on their set-piece.
Israel Dagg was a key absentee from the Crusaders side against the Sharks in May © Getty Images
I am an advocate for the viewpoint that the more a pack scrum together the better they are going to get, and the du Plessis brothers, Bismarck and Jannie, have obviously done a lot of scrummaging together; they have a really good combination and understand each other, but the opposition they are coming up against this weekend are much the same.
That front-row from the Crusaders is pretty well drilled, and they should be able to match and nullify the Sharks' scrum; and with Dominic Bird and Sam Whitelock, there is no reason why the Crusaders should be afraid of the Sharks' lineout.
Scrum5: Super Rugby podcast review of the qualifying finals%]
I don't think, however, the set-piece is going to be the telling factor Christchurch. It is going to come down to defence. And the Sharks have got a fantastic defence. The Sharks put the Crusaders under pressure beneath the high ball earlier in the season, but Israel Dagg did not play in that game and, with Dan Carter back in the team and Colin Slade in the side, this Crusaders XV will not be fragile under the high ball. And they've certainly got some attacking potency to test the Sharks defence through Nemani Nadolo.
You would have to be pretty brave to put money on the Sharks with the travel factor and the fact the Crusaders have had a week off after hitting some form. You saw the Sharks' relief when they beat the Crusaders in Christchurch for the first time in the competition's history; they were so excited, you got the feeling they had almost surprised themselves. And to come over and do it in a semi-final against a Crusaders team with their full contingent of players back, including Richie McCaw, Carter and Dagg … they'll be doubting themselves.
Red-and-black fans can be assured this 'Jafa' will be supporting them this weekend, and I am sure many other New Zealand fans will be as well. It's quite a weird feeling: all the other teams are gone, leaving only the Crusaders, so the patriotism comes out.
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