Loftus set to curtail Jake White's progress
The White Knight has had great success in steering the Brumbies to glory. That's quite enough of that.
History tells us that Jake White will have a plan. History also tells us that, however good the plan might be, logistical issues will probably render it ineffective.
For this week's Super Rugby semifinal, White's Brumbies first have to shake off the debilitating effects of beating the Cheetahs in Canberra last weekend. Then they have to travel across the time zones to face the rested Bulls in front of a full house at Loftus.
They nearly managed it last year, White's first in charge, going down 36-34 in a controversial match refereed by Marius Jonker. The Brumbies raced into the lead and eventually scored five tries to two, but they were sunk by the kicking of Morné Steyn, who contributed seven penalties, a conversion and a dropped goal for a personal haul of 27 points.
The Brumbies had been a rudderless ship for a few years until White stepped in and turned their fortunes around. They missed out on the playoffs when they lost to the Blues in the final round of log play in 2012, but this year, they qualified comfortably at the top of the Australian conference. White's well-known eye for talent and an insistence on performing the basics of the game well proved heaven-sent for the franchise.
The return from Japan of George Smith, albeit blighted by injury, also helped to instil the missing sense of self-belief. Thirty-two-year-old Smith retains his place this week and will act as a conduit between the current side and the one piloted by George Gregan and Stephen Larkham a decade ago.
Remarkably, it is nine years since the Brumbies reached the semifinals of Super Rugby. They also beat the Bulls 23-20 in Canberra earlier this year, with a disputed penalty after the hooter had gone.
Last week, the Brumbies won against the Cheetahs as a result of superior work at the set pieces, which should give Bulls coach Frans Ludeke more than a little pause for thought.
Even so, if Riaan Smit's last-gasp conversion attempt had gone over and not under the crossbar, the Cheetahs may have claimed an unlikely victory. They finished the stronger of the two sides and would have been the favourites if the game had gone to extra time.
It did not, though, and so, instead of having to beat the Crusaders, the Bulls have a less onerous prospect facing them.
Ludeke will need to make sure his scrum does not creak and he will also need to fix the line-out, where the absence of Juandré Kruger and Pierre Spies severely curtails the Bulls' options.
The coach will also have spent much of the past two weeks pondering the lessons of defeat against the Stormers in Cape Town and, before that, a one-point win against the Sharks in Pretoria.
For the Bulls, the end of log play came with a whimper rather than a bang and their inability to rise above a severely limited game plan will give strength to the visitors this week.
But sometimes there is strength in predictability. The Bulls may not be the mighty juggernaut of 2009/10, but they have papered over the cracks remarkably well and they have a group of players who believe in the system. They are unbeaten at Loftus this year, have won five out of five in knockout games at home, and the adrenalin of the occasion should see them through.
As to who they will play, and where, all will be revealed well before battle commences, for the all-New Zealand semifinal will be played on Saturday morning in Hamilton.
The Chiefs have the unenviable task of ending the late-season surge by the Crusaders. The seven-time champions destroyed the Reds last week, although an impartial observer would have expected the best halfback pair in world rugby to have a full go at the Crusaders.
Instead, Will Genia was dispatched to the role of sweeper, tidying up tactical kicks from Dan Carter and Co, and without his snappy service at the breakdown, Quade Cooper was rendered impotent. It smacked of an inferiority complex, and that is no way to face down the Crusaders.
The Chiefs will not make the same mistake this week. The defending champions have not been as irresistible in 2013, but they ended on top of the log, whereas in 2012 they
could only finish second to the Stormers.
Also in the demerit column is the absence of the remarkable Sonny-Bill Williams from the midfield, but it could be argued that they are stronger in other areas now.
Last year, the Chiefs played the Crusaders three times, including the semifinal, which was also in Hamilton. The Chiefs won twice, the Crusaders once, but the aggregate score for the three fixtures was 65-64 in favour of the Chiefs.
In other words, far too close to call. All that needs to be said is that a win for the Chiefs will guarantee them a home final against either the Brumbies or Bulls, while a win for the Crusaders will send them to either Canberra or Pretoria.