Super Rugby: An in-Depth Preview of Each Playoff Team
It is that time of year again. The Super 15 playoffs are upon us, with only six teams remaining in their quest for Southern Hemisphere rugby supremacy.
Predicting a winner is never easy and has become that much tougher since the inception of the new playoffs system in 2011. That does not stop us from trying though, and here we will take a look at how each team is shaping up as crunch time looms, as well as how they match-up with each other.
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The Cheetahs were something of a surprise package in 2013. Sure they have looked threatening over the past few years, but few predicted them to go all the way and claim a top-six spot. They defied the critics though, showing some great form and putting together some quality performances to notch up 10 wins.
They play an attractive brand of rugby, looking to move the ball and attack from all over the park. However, they are not all razzle-dazzle, possessing a physical presence, especially in the loose forwards which enables them to gain the go-forward for the backs to work with.
At this level though, they are an inexperienced team. This is their first playoff appearance, coming into the competition when it expanded to 14 teams in 2006 and struggling for their first six years. They may lack big game experience, although they certainly won't die wondering.
They must travel to Canberra to face the Brumbies in their quarter final match-up, which may prove to be too much of a mountain to climb.
Last time the two team's met the Cheetahs gave the Brumbies a real run for their money and the Brumbies hardly set the world alight in an embarrassing loss to the Force last weekend.
But the travel factor cannot be underestimated, especially at this stage of the season. In fact, of the South African teams only the Sharks in 1996 and 2013 have won playoff games outside of their home country.
This perhaps is the biggest factor to consider in this match-up and ultimately it will see that the Cheetahs face an uphill battle if they are to progress to the semifinals.
Adrian Strauss. Adrian Strauss has come on in a big way over the past two seasons. He is fast around the field and a strong ball runner, while also providing leadership for his team.
Prediction: Beaten Quarter Finalists.
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It is hard to know what to make of the Reds. One week they can look unstoppable and others they can look absolutely atrocious. This perhaps can be attributed to controversial first five-eighth Quade Cooper.
Cooper is certainly a live wire. He is equally capable of doing something brilliant as he is of doing something awful. His running game can be incisive, but it can also get him into trouble. His cut-out passes can set up tries, but they can also lead to intercepts. He is a liability on defence, not great under the high ball and his kicking game can often be off the mark.
Whether the good or bad Cooper turns up will largely affect how the Reds go, given his proximity to the action and his importance to how the team runs.
Other than this though they possess some good parts. Will Genia remains one of the world's best players, a halfback with a fast pass, a dangerous running game and an intelligent kicking game. He is unquestionably a key and like Cooper, is capable of winning a game with a good individual performance.
They have a solid looseforward trio and a handy tight five led by captain James Horwill. Their back line is dangerous and given space could prove a handful for the Crusaders in their quarter final match this weekend.
On paper they really don't match up. They are coming up against a team that has talent all over the park and who are coming into form at the right time.
The battle up front will be key and if the Reds are able to at least gain parity here they will at least give themselves a shot. They have backs that can create and finish and if Cooper fires they may cause an upset.
Again though, do not underestimate the home ground advantage the Crusaders will enjoy. While this is not quite so significant as the travel between Australia and New Zealand is much more manageable than what the South African teams face, it is still another factor working against the Reds.
Will Genia: Genia is a dangerous runner from the base who can snipe his way through holes and change a game. His kicking game is good too and he has the ability to control a game through his cool head.
Quade Cooper: If he is having a good day, the Reds may find themselves capable of causing an upset, but that is a big if.
Prediction: Beaten Quarter Finalists.
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Jake White has done wonders with this Brumbies franchise, rejuvenating the franchise after a few lean years which saw them fail to make the playoffs between 2005 and 2012.
Of course, the franchise is one of the proudest in the history of the competition, winning championships in 2001 and 2004, while also making the final in 1997, 2000 and 2002. They can lay claim to producing many of the best players to play Super Rugby and have always been one of the toughest teams to beat at home. Their game plan of building phases became well known and was one they executed with precision.
The new crop of Brumbies has found their way back into the playoffs, although with a very different style of play and in a very different competition format.
They no longer look to build phases with ball in hand, preferring to play a territory based game where they kick in behind the opposition defence and apply pressure that way. Their loose forward trio is strong, their inside backs heady and their back three dangerous.
Their home ground advantage still remains one of the best in the competition, which will be huge when it comes to their game against the Cheetahs this weekend.
Employing a kicking game can be risky against a Cheetahs team who are dangerous in open play, but it could also allow them to apply pressure and force the Cheetahs to make mistakes.
They bring poor form into this game, after a loss to the Force last weekend, but with their playoff spot already secured one must wonder how motivated this side was. Playoff rugby brings out the best in teams like this and they will most likely respond with a top performance.
If they win this game, they will travel to Pretoria, where they will take on the Bulls in the semifinals. The Bulls play a similar game to the Brumbies, executing more accurately, but perhaps lacking some of the spark of their back line.
Either way, the Bulls are near impossible to beat at home and this in itself is a good enough reason to predict the Brumbies road will end here.
George Smith, a Brumbies legend, was called upon after captain David Pocock succumbed to an early season injury. It has been four years since Smith played in Australia, but he has looked the goods since his return. He tackles ferociously and is adept at the breakdown, while also being a strong ball runner and will be key in the loose.
Prediction: Beaten Semifinalists.
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The defending champions will enter these playoffs as the favourites in many people's eyes.
For parts of 2013 they have certainly looked very good, employing a well organised defence and an abundance of attacking flair.
But there have been times when they have looked fairly average too, falling off tackles, failing to take their chances and ultimately looking very much like the Chiefs of years gone by.
They will enjoy a week off this weekend and will host the lowest qualifier of the quarter final winners next week in the semifinals.
Unfortunately for them, there is a good chance this team could be the Crusaders, probably the one team capable of tearing them apart at home. This is a Crusaders team coming into form at the right time of season and just to prove it beat the Chiefs 43-15 two weeks ago.
The Chiefs have plenty of spark in their back line and will rely on Aaron Cruden to create for their dangerous midfield and lively back three. Here they should at least match the Crusaders, all things being equal up front.
But all things are not always equal up front and the Crusaders definitely have the edge here. The Chiefs front row is solid, but not spectacular, the locks are good, but no better than the Crusaders duo, and the loose forward trio will struggle against a Crusaders trio boasting Kieran Read and the returning Richie McCaw.
Gaining parity here is crucial, but that is easier said than done.
Should they find themselves up against the Reds or the Cheetahs they would have to enter as favourites. The Cheetahs would struggle on the road for a second week and may be suffering from a hangover from the week before, while the Reds would come up against a team out for revenge for a big loss earlier in the season.
If this happens and they go on to make the final, they will win it. Getting past the Crusaders is the key, just as it has been for so many teams over the years.
Liam Messam is defensively one of the strongest players in the world, Messam is the leader of what is generally a rock-solid defence. Rarely do ball runners get go-forward when Messam is the tackler and his work-rate is such that he keeps getting up and looking for more tackles to make.
Aaron Cruden is capable of putting his backs into holes, making the Chiefs one of the most dangerous back lines in the competition. How he goes controlling the game will be crucial, especially if his team is on the back foot against the Crusaders.
Prediction: Beaten Semifinalists.
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The most successful team in Super Rugby history makes its twelfth consecutive playoffs appearance in 2013, which in itself is an almost unbelievable achievement. Their success over the years has been built off coming right at the business end of the season, usually saving their best rugby for the finals.
This year has been no different, looking very average early on in the season, but have come right in recent weeks and are definitely the form team of the competition.
They have class all over the field, from a physical tight five who are strong at set-piece and effective around the field, to a dynamic loose forward trio who are ever-present on defence and strong running the ball. In the backs they have arguably the best nine-ten duo in the competition, a tidy midfield and a potentially threatening back three.
It certainly does not bode well for opponents. They are a team who are guided around the field by the incomparable Daniel Carter, who puts his team in positions to attack from. Their forward pack is one which will get them the go-forward to provide a good platform to work from, while the likes of Israel Dagg and Tom Marshall are lethal out wide.
Most notably though, they take their chances. It is very rare that you will see a Crusaders team squander a chance at points and this is the mark of a truly good team.
They should be too strong up front for the Reds this weekend. Their tight five is operating far better now than it was early in the season and their loose forwards will be too dynamic and too strong for their opposites. The presence of Carter in the No. 10 jersey should ensure the backs get enough to work with too and will ensure the points come.
A matchup with the Chiefs in the semifinals is a mouthwatering prospect and will provide a great spectacle. It is a game that could go either way, but their superiority in the tight and a stronger presence in the loose should see the Chiefs forwards worn down and the Crusaders eventually prevailing.
This would leave the near impossible task of beating the Bulls at Loftus Versfeld, which is a tough task no matter how good you are. The Crusaders are certainly capable of it, as if the Bulls get their kicking game wrong the Crusaders back three are good enough on the counter to punish them.
They certainly have a chance, but the effects of the travel usually leave teams a yard slower and the loose forwards may not quite have the same edge they normally would.
Kieran Read is a strong ball carrier who can both provide go-forward and create for his team, while also being a physical defender who rarely misses tackles and will make plenty.
Daniel Carter is the key to the Crusaders back line operating smoothly, and is a player capable of doing it all. He possesses a very good kicking game, while also being a threat on attack, strong on defence and tactically astute. Over the past few weeks he has been playing the best rugby he has played since 2010, making him all the more threatening.
Prediction: Beaten Finalists.
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The Bulls are another team who have rejuvenated themselves after losing a host of their best players. However, their turnaround has come much faster than the Brumbies one did. It certainly is impressive that only three years after winning their last championship, they are back as genuine contenders with a different looking team.
Morne Steyn is still the key man in the No. 10 jersey though, with his kicking game so vital to the Bulls success.
They are not a team that is going to play expansive rugby or run a team off its feet, more so one that will kick accurately and look to apply pressure by gaining field position and backing their defence. It may not be the most exciting tactic in the world, but it is sure effective and is one the Bulls do very well.
In Steyn they have arguably the best kicker in the competition, whose accurate boot is crucial and is the source of the majority of the Bulls points. Their other main scoring weapon comes in the rolling maul, which once started is almost impossible to stop and is something the Bulls do very well, setting a good platform from a very safe line-out.
At home they have an impressive record, with a combination of a hostile crowd, the high altitude of the ground and the travel involved for New Zealand and Australian teams making them very tough to beat in their fortress of Loftus Versfeld.
Keeping this in mind, it is inevitable that they will enter as favourites against anyone while they are playing at home. Should the Chiefs find their way to the final, it becomes a different ball game as they no longer have the home advantage and are far more vulnerable on the road.
But if we follow these predictions, they will remain at home for their two playoff games, which is crucial in the grand scheme of things. They will not change their game plan, no matter who they are playing against, looking to suffocate their opposition with an accurate kicking game. This is a strong tactic against anyone at altitude and provided they get it right, it would be a huge ask to beat them at Loftus.
The Crusaders definitely have a chance, but they will enter as underdogs, while the Chiefs will leap frog to favourites if they can find their way to the final.
The forwards will operate well as a pack and are crucial to the Bulls, but as far as individuals go, Morne Steyn is the obvious key man for the Bulls. His kicking is outstanding, both at goal and in field and is crucial to the Bulls success. If he has an off night, they may struggle, but he rarely does and it would be a big call to suggest he will now.