Super Rugby: Crusaders, Sharks Through to Semifinals After Impressive Wins

Jeff Cheshire@@jeff_cheshireAnalyst IIJuly 22, 2012

CHRISTCHURCH, NEW ZEALAND - JULY 21: Richie McCaw of the Crusaders runs into Francois Hougaard of the Bulls during the Super Rugby Qualifying Final match between the Crusaders and the Bulls  at AMI Stadium on July 21, 2012 in Christchurch, New Zealand.  (Photo by Martin Hunter/Getty Images)
Martin Hunter/Getty Images

The Crusaders and Sharks have both won their first-round Super Rugby playoff matches, which ensure they will progress to next week's semifinals. Both teams looked very good, taking the game away from their opponents in the first half and never letting them back into it.

The wins set up two local derbies next week, where the Crusaders will trek north to play the Chiefs, while the Sharks will travel to Cape Town to face the table-topping Stormers.

Crusaders: 28, Bulls: 13

The Crusaders were completely dominant as they strolled to a 28-13 win over a Bulls side who never threatened. It was a game marked by the physicality of the Crusaders forwards who dominated at breakdown time and ensured the Bulls were constantly on the back foot.

Out wide, they looked to move the ball and take on the Bulls. They only managed one try, but such was the pressure, the Bulls continued to concede penalties that Daniel Carter was able to turn into points. 

In contrast, the Bulls played typical Bulls rugby. Kick and chase. Everything. The whole game. Even when they were trailing by 20 points with time running out, they continued with their one-dimensional game plan. 

While it's a game plan that's won them three championships, it simply wasn't the one to use to beat the Crusaders last night. Particularly when it's not being executed well, as was the case last night, with Morne Steyn having an unusually off night with the boot. This was in effect just giving the ball back to the Crusaders to run back, which is asking for trouble when you look at the flair in this Crusaders back line.

But it was the dominance of the Crusaders forwards that made it so hard for Steyn and the rest of the Bulls to do anything. Richie McCaw was immense carrying the ball, while Sam Whitelock too had a very strong game. 

This is a Crusaders team on form, and they will be tough to beat from now on. Despite finishing fourth on the final competition standings, it wouldn't be silly at all to suggest the Crusaders were now favourites to take the title.

Sharks: 30, Reds: 17

After claiming the final Top Six spot last week, the Sharks have travelled to Brisbane and defeated the defending-champion Reds by 30-17. 

They shot out to an early 20-3 lead and looked very polished. The Reds weren't able to recover, and, despite fighting back, the game had effectively been lost in the first 30 minutes.

The Sharks pack got on top early, with the tight five gaining the ascendancy at set piece and the looseforwards running powerfully to get them on the front foot. Their backs looked dangerous, too, with JP Pietersen being the pick of them. He continued what has been an outstanding season with a top performance, getting involved and scoring a try. 

Defensively they were outstanding, and it was here that the game was closed out in the second half. The Reds tried continually to get across, but simply couldn't do enough as the Sharks showed why many regard them as the dark horse for this year's title.

On current form, one would have to call the Sharks favourites as they enter their game against the Stormers next week. But it may not be as straightforward as this. The Sharks have had to travel to Australia and back to South Africa again in the past week. This shouldn't be underestimated, as it does take its toll. Should they win, they will be required to travel once more, this time to New Zealand to play the final. 

It's a tough ask to win from here. But don't write them off; they are playing very good rugby, and it wouldn't be a surprise at all to see a Crusaders vs. Sharks final in two weeks' time.