It has been more than a decade since any team won a Super Rugby play-off match outside their own country, which is good news for the Reds and the Stormers as they prepare for Saturday’s semifinals against New Zealand powerhouses.
After a week off, the Reds are itching to get into three-time champions the Blues in the Brisbane clash, which precedes the Stormers’ heavyweight tussle with the seven-time champion Crusaders in Cape Town.
After two seasons of scintillating rugby under Ewen McKenzie, it is easy to forget the Reds finished second-bottom in the 2009 season and have not been in a play-off since 2001.
Far from being intimidated by the prospect, the week off and return of key backs Digby Ioane and Anthony Fainga’a as well as flanker Beau Robinson from injury seem only to have sharpened their anticipation.
“For lack of experience I think we make up for in enthusiasm,” dreadlocked hooker Saia Fainga’a, Anthony’s twin, told ABC radio.
“We’re definitely eager, maybe too eager to get out there and get amongst it. We’re definitely not under-awed about the occasion, but for us it is a matter about us and how we play.
“The whole season has been about us. We’re just taking it one step at a time and we’re nice and fresh and ready to go.”
The Reds beat the Blues 37-31 in Brisbane in May, having taken a 24-0 lead at one stage but Auckland flyhalf Stephen Brett said there would be no repeat of that start on Saturday.
“It was just our missed tackles. We weren’t prepared for the game they brought to us, and hopefully this week we can be ready to go,” he told Fairfax media.
At the heart of that game was the combination of scrumhalf Will Genia and flyhalf Quade Cooper, and Brett suggested they could expect plenty of close attention from the Blues back row.
“They’re such great players, and if they get good gain-line they’re hard to stop,” he added. “Quade has got such jinky feet and Will throws those wide passes. If we can eliminate them, hopefully it’s going to be an even game.”
The Stormers are the only team in the last four never to have won a Super Rugby title — the Reds won it twice in the mid-1990s — but they have the most recent experience of a final, having lost to the Bulls in the title game last year.
Hoping to go one better this year, they will be looking to their highly disciplined defence to stop a Crusaders side that won 19-6 at Newlands earlier this season, but also to add a bit more tactical nous.
“In last year’s semifinal against the Waratahs we simply overpowered them, but the Crusaders aren’t a team that will be out-muscled in the same way,” coach Allister Coetzee told the Times.
“To beat them, of course, we’ll need physical intensity, but, more importantly, tactically we’ll have to be smarter than them.
“When we lost to them earlier this year, physicality wasn’t an issue but we made some mistakes that cost us. The Crusaders have class all over the field and with [Dan] Carter operating at flyhalf they’re going to be formidable.”
The Crusaders, who are likely to welcome flanker and captain Richie McCaw back from injury, were the last team to win a play-off outside their home country when they triumphed in the 2000 final against the Brumbies in Canberra.
After the deadly February earthquake damaged their stadium, they have been forced to make a virtue out of being on the road this season.
If disgruntled locals cheer them on as they did in their April victory at Newlands, however, the Crusaders may feel right at home in the Cape. — Reuters