A mammoth task
Thinus Delport looks ahead to the Super Rugby play-offs including the Sharks against the Crusaders.
By Thinus Delport
Last Updated: 24/06/11 5:54pm
What a great final weekend of Super Rugby we experienced!
Apart from the Rebels and Force game where only pride was at stake, every one of the remaining seven games results had an impact on the structure of the six play-off positions under the new extended format.
Admittedly I wasn't initially very supportive of the new expanded, conference system-format of the show piece competition of the Southern Hemisphere.
There are still several issues that need to be resolved and accepted, but the new format's extra wild card slots ensured an intense and suspenseful final push for the increased number of teams fighting for those positions. It allowed us, the supporters, the opportunity to watch more meaningful games at the back end of the tournament.
The fact that the final six weren't decided until the last minute of the last match, Bulls v Sharks, is testament to that. The Sharks stunned the Bulls away from home for an emphatic victory over the defending champions to book their places on the plane to face the ever-impressive Crusaders in Nelson on Saturday.
The biggest change to this year's competition was the increased number of home derby matches created by the conference system. These matches bring out an extra level of physicality and intensity when you have to play against players vying for the same shirt in the national side.
There is also a lot of pride at stake on these games especially amongst the most passionate of supporters. Social networking sites were congested with banter before every one of the derby matches in South Africa. Nothing like a bit of traditional North-South rivalry to get the atmosphere and emotions pumping.
The increased matches certainly helped to improve the spectator numbers at the grounds and it can clearly be seen in the increased number of Australian supporters going to cheer on their favourite team.
One of the main concerns I had about the increased number of home derby matches were the injuries that might occur during the tournament.
With one eye on the World Cup starting in September it will be an area the national coaches will be very aware and wary of. It would have been a steep learning curve for the Super Rugby coaches in terms of management and rotation of players due to the extended nature of the competition. A number of the squads were running on the bare bones and a couple of players were grabbed from obscurity to fill in the squads and make up the numbers.
Caleb Ralph certainly wouldn't have seen himself playing for the Reds where he was sitting on the beaches of the Sunshine Coast at the start of the season! There are definitely some lessons that can be learnt of squad management by the Southern Hemisphere teams from the likes of Premiership teams competing in the Heineken Cup, Premiership and LV=Cup. Playing rugby at such a high intensity for such an extended period of time will be new to the majority of teams especially in Australia where they don't go into a domestic competition after the conclusion of the Super Rugby season.
The Reds and Stormers will be delighted with the week's reprieve they've earned themselves by qualifying in the top two spots. The week off will give them time to recover as both teams have suffered a string of injuries in key areas with the Stormers having run out of players to cover the No.10 shirt behind Peter Grant.
The most significant loss for the Stormers will be that of Duane Vermeulen at No.8 though. His abrasive tackling and physical presence will be sorely missed by the best defensive outfit of the competition.
Blues blowing hot and cold
Not so fortunate are the Waratahs looking to turn over an ever inconsistent Blues team at Eden Park in Auckland. The Waratahs biggest challenge will be to find enough numbers to fill the team with a string of injuries on the books. They are without 12 regular starting players, the latest of which, Luke Burgess, had to withdraw due to a broken hand suffered in training this week. Kurtley Beale will still be the man to watch out for even though he will have to move to flyhalf to cover the loss of Halangahu.
Although the Blues have also lost key game breakers like Isea Toeava and Rene Ranger in the back, however, the loss of Ta'tafu Polotu-Nau up front for the Waratahs will deny them a main source of forward momentum needed to open up space for Kurtley.
The Blues go into this game making only one change from last week's winning side against the Highlanders and with Kevin Mealamu, Ali Williams and Jerome Kaino laying the platform up front I can't see the Waratahs going to Eden Park and upsetting a Blues side eager to silence their critics. It will be close though as the Waratahs have the second best defensive record of the competition.
Praise for Crusaders
A special mention must be made of the extraordinary achievement by the Crusaders to finish top of the New Zealand conference. If you take into account the personal challenges these players had to face after the devastating earthquake in Christchurch and the fact that they've effectively not played a single home game the entire campaign it would be a truly remarkable feat if they could go ahead and win this year's competition. The kind of epic tale Hollywood movies are made of!
The Sharks come off the back of an incredible away win against Bulls. There were doubts around their physicality leading into the game after their desperate draw against the Lions the week before, but they emphatically proved the doubters to be wrong. They will have to replicate that mammoth effort again this week when they take on the Crusaders. The return of Sonny Bill Williams and Sean Maitland behind a very impressive Crusaders pack makes the challenge facing the Sharks even bigger.
That's not even factoring in the travel-fatigue and jetlag caused by travelling halfway around the world added to the equation.
This is going to be a bruising encounter up front, but I fear the Crusaders just have too much class in the back to overpower the Sharks. Dan Carter and Sonny Bill Williams are two of the best players in the world to put players around them into space and Zac Guildford and Sean Maitland some of the best in attacking that space.
Anything can happen in a knockout game though and as it is a World Cup year, just ask any Kiwi supporter!
Enjoy the weekend's rugby entertainment.
THINUS DELPORT'S SKY BET TIPS
Blues v Waratahs: It will be close as the Waratahs have the second best defensive record of the competition, but I think the smart money is on the home side.
Crusaders v Sharks: It will be a gallant effort by the Sharks, but the Crusaders will win this one comfortably.