Injuries, coaching concerns and travel fatigue loom as significant factors in the Super 14 rugby semifinals when the Crusaders, Waratahs, Sharks and Hurricanes front up on Saturday.
Competition leaders the Crusaders are at home to the Hurricanes in the first knock-out match, followed by the second-placed Waratahs hosting the Sharks in Sydney.
With the basic instinct of semifinal rugby being survival, both games are expected to place an extra emphasis on the forwards for initial dominance.
”It’s got to be done up front,” said Crusaders fullback Leon MacDonald. ”That will dictate where the game goes.”
The Crusaders, the competition’s most successful franchise who have only missed the play-offs once in the past 10 years, looked unbeatable midway through the season.
But the edge has gone off their game as the season wore on with a loss to the Waikato Chiefs and then in the past two weeks a come-from-behind win over the Queensland Reds and a shock loss to the Otago Highlanders.
Crusaders coach Robbie Deans has made five changes to the starting line-up that lost to the Highlanders, saying they were performance-based decisions.
Prop Wyatt Crockett and flanker Kieran Read replace Ben Franks and Reuben Thorne respectively, Casey Laulala and Tim Bateman take over in the midfield and Scott Hamilton is back on the wing.
This returns the Crusaders pack to its strongest combination, with Crockett the only player in the run-on side who did not start when they beat the Hurricanes 20-13 at Wellington earlier in the year.
Since that clash, the Hurricanes have strengthened their midfield and attacking options by shifting Ma’a Nonu to inside centre, partnering Conrad Smith in a potent combination.
But the ‘Canes do face a problem up front, with the possible loss of inspirational captain Rodney So’oialo, a central figure with Jerry Collins and Chris Masoe in their All Blacks loose trio dubbed ”the bouncers”.
So’oialo is banking on a fitness test near kick-off to prove he has sufficiently overcome the rib injury suffered in last week’s 17-19 loss to the Auckland Blues.
”I’ll be pushing to try to get on the field. I’m one of those players who doesn’t want to miss any game,” he said.
But if he is ruled out, Chris Masoe will start in the back row with Scott Waldrom on the openside flank, which Collins said will fuel their desire to get the Hurricanes into the final for their captain.
”We just have to get out there and buy him another week. That’s our main goal, to get him to the final.”
As if match pressure wasn’t enough to contend with, the Waratahs have had the added distraction of having the future of coach Ewen McKenzie played out in the media as they prepared to meet the Sharks.
Australian Rugby Union boss John O’Neill became so concerned that it was undermining the chances of the sole Australian semifinalist that he called for talk about the coaching position to be put on hold.
”They finished second in one of the toughest competitions in world rugby and all the focus deserves to be on the team,” he said.
The Waratahs’ success has been built on a bold forward-based game, astutely supported by young flyhalf Kurtley Beale.
One of the stand-out performers, back-rower Wycliff Palu, has already been singled out by the Sharks as a danger and they have recalled Tongan hard man Epi Taione as a counter.
”In our defeat to the Waratahs in Sydney we were bullied in the loose,” Sharks coach Dick Muir told South African media.
The Sharks, who have had to travel to Sydney for the semifinal, did not do well on the road in the regular season, losing to the Waratahs and Crusaders in consecutive weeks.
Of the two matches, captain Johann Muller rated the Waratahs the tougher opposition.
”Absolutely! They are a really well-coached side, they retain the ball well, and it’s going to be tough, let’s be honest,” Muller said.
”We have had to fly over here, we have five days to prepare and we’re playing a good side, so certainly, it is going to be tough.”
If the Crusaders win they will host the final next week. If they lose to the Hurricanes then the final home-ground advantage will go to the winner of the Waratahs-Sharks clash. — AFP