Blues, Crusaders face historic Super semis

The Auckland Blues and Canterbury Crusaders will attempt to become the first teams since 1999 to win Super rugby semifinals on foreign soil when they face the Queensland Reds and South Africa’s Stormers in the penultimate weekend of the Super 15 season on Saturday.

In what may be an eerie foreshadowing of weekend events, the Crusaders were among the last teams to achieve the feat when they beat the Queensland Reds in Brisbane in 1999. The Otago Highlanders repeated the achievement in the second semifinal of the same season, beating the Stormers in Cape Town.

On Saturday, the first-place Reds host the Blues in Brisbane and second-place Stormers are at home to the Crusaders in Cape Town.

Each team carries its own historical baggage. Top qualifiers the Reds and Stormers have never won a Super Rugby title in the professional era, though the Reds twice won the Super 10 competition in the mid-1990s.

The Crusaders will attempt to extend the most successful record in Super Rugby when they appear in the semifinals for the 13th time and for the 10th-straight season.

The Blues have the second-best record in the tournament’s history as three-time winners and three-time runners up but have not been to the semis since 2007 and last won the title when they beat the Crusaders in 2003.

The Stormers were beaten finalists last year and have therefore been to the final more recently than any of the other semifinalists: the Crusaders were last finalists in 2008 when they won a Super rugby championship for the seventh time.

Coming out ok
Perhaps the burden of history is greatest on the Reds. The Queenslanders have led the current tournament throughout the season and finished in first place for the first time since the advent of the Super 12 in 1996.

In doing so, they completed their remarkable transformation under coach Ewen McKenzie. The Reds finished 13th in 2009 before McKenzie took over and guided them to fifth place last year and to No. 1 qualifier this season — their first semifinal since 2001.

The Reds have carried a heavy burden through much of the past season, having to see off a string of opponents determined to prove themselves with a win over the tournament’s top-ranked team.

They have still managed to put together their longest winning streak in Super Rugby — seven matches before their loss to the Wellington Hurricanes in round 11 — and to extend a winning run at home to 12 games before their loss to the ACT Brumbies in round 16.

That long run of pressure matches might have steeled the Reds for Saturday’s play-offs and helped to compensate their recent lack of semifinals experience. McKenzie told Australian media that lack of big game experience became a problem only “if you keep talking about it”.

“We’ve played some big games this year, including against the Stormers in front of a big crowd on foreign soil, and we got through that,” he said. “We played in front of our biggest crowd against the Crusaders and got through that.

“And we’ve had a few close games, such as against the Waratahs, which we managed to deal with. So I’m not stressed about that side of it. We’ve confronted big circumstances this year, and have come out of them OK.”

‘Getting our game right’
McKenzie said the Reds had players in key positions, notably halves Will Genia and Quade Cooper, accustomed to the intensity of test football. The expected return from injury of outside backs Digby Ioane, Anthony Faingaa and backrower Beau Robinson to also expected to provide strength.

“It is important that in key positions, as well as in decision-making and leadership, we have experienced players,” McKenzie said. “Even our fringe players … have played in front of big crowds. So I don’t think the players will be worried about the occasion … it’s more about getting our game right.”

The Blues, who were beaten 37-31 by the Reds in their last trip to Suncorp Stadium, will attempt to become the first team in 12 years to reach the final from fourth place.

“It’s a big challenge, but an exciting challenge,” coach Pat Lam said. “The real pleasing thing is that we’ve put our names in there and now we’ve got an opportunity to make the final.

“The Reds are the top team and we came up short last time we were there so it’s important we have good preparation for this game. The excitement of play-off rugby is big and we’re looking forward to it.”

Stormers coach Allister Coetzee has named Conrad Jantjes ahead of Gio Aplon at fullback, hoping to nullify the kicking game of All Blacks flyhalf Dan Carter and to emphasize the defence which has been his team’s strength this season.

“When you are looking to attack Gio is the better choice but this is a play-off game,” Coetzee said. “Conrad has got a big boot, he has been in big games before and I think that is a combination that has worked well for us and if we need any impact on attack we can still make the switch.”

‘Absolutely bloody determined’
The Stormers also have, in Peter Grant, the most reliable goalkicker in the Super 15 this season. Grant has been successful with 84.7% of his attempts while Carter is only 10th on the list with 73.1%.

Coetzee said the Stormers had to rely on the gameplan that had served it well throughout the season.

“One thing about playing against the Crusaders is that you have to have patience to break them down,” Coetzee said. “You won’t score with the first line break. Scores will come from sustained pressure on their line and their defence.

“So the guys cannot become erratic and move the ball without a plan. But we need to concentrate on our defence and back our system that has served us well this season. The players understand we have to stick to our game plan.”

The Crusaders’ trip to Cape Town for Saturday’s semifinal continues their season-long trek. Since their home stadium was wrecked by a deadly earthquake on February 22, they have covered more than 80 000km and played home games at five venues, including London and Wellington.

All Blacks captain Richie McCaw will return from a four-week absence with a foot injury to lead the Crusaders. McCaw’s fellow All Blacks backrower, Keiran Read, has also been named despite an ankle strain.

The Crusaders have lost in semifinals in South Africa in each of the last two seasons but coach Todd Blackadder said they could overcome a difficult season to repair that record.

“We’re absolutely bloody determined that we are not going to let this one slip and we are going to make the most of this opportunity and put a good performance in,” he said. — Sapa-AP

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