After 20 punishing weeks of Super 15 action, six teams remain in the hunt for victory. Best placed to do so are New Zealand’s Chiefs and South Africa’s Bulls, after they finished first and second in the league to ensure automatic semi-final spots and, perhaps more importantly, an extra week off to recuperate.
Before those two join the action, there’s the small matter the of the playoffs to determine who they play. We’ve picked out the players likely to be pivotal to their side’s chances of success.
July 20—Canterbury Crusaders vs. Queensland Reds, AMI Stadium, Christchurch, New Zealand. K/O Time: 3.35 ET
July 21—ACT Brumbies vs. Central Cheetahs, Canberra Stadium, Canberra, Australia. K/O Time: 2.10 a.m ET
Matt Todd (Canterbury Crusaders)
Filling New Zealand captain Richie McCaw’s boots is no small order, but Todd has done expertly well to not just nail down a starting space but become one of his team’s key players.
The openside flanker has already thrown in close to 200 tackles this season and, according to ABC.net, has been given the nod over McCaw for the crucial playoff showdown in Christchurch. The showdown presents the perfect opportunity for him to stake his claim for a place in the New Zealand side.
The Crusaders enter the Reds playoff game seeking retribution after falling to a 18-13 defeat to Queensland in the 2011 final, and if Todd can continue to batter the opposition defence, they have a real shot.
Quade Cooper (Queensland Reds)
The 2011 Super 15’s leading point scorer returned in his side’s 14-12 defeat to the Waratahs, and the fly-half’s form is pivotal to the Reds’ fortunes.
Cooper famously took to the boxing ring earlier this year, where he knocked out his opponent in the opening round, but The Guardian’s Rajiv Maharaj writes that it has helped him rediscover his confidence.
If he can get somewhere near the level he was playing at two years ago, when he inspired the Reds to the Super 15 crown, then the Reds will have every chance of returning from New Zealand victorious.
Christian Lealiifano (ACT Brumbies)
The Brumbies fell back down with a bump after their famous 14-12 win over the British and Irish Lions, throwing away an automatic semi-final spot when they fell to lowly Western Force at the weekend.
With tension bound to be high following that loss, they must hope their super-composed kicker Lealiifano can keep them in contention when they come up against a Cheetahs side who will play without fear as the underdogs.
The Australian has kicked 183 points for his side this season, the third-highest total in the competition, and looks central to his side’s hopes as they seek to recover from their latest setback.
Willie le Roux (Central Cheetahs)
What an opportunity for the Cheetahs to romp into the Brumbies backyard and steal their expected semi-final spot. Key to any upset, though, is likely to be the form of Le Roux.
The utility back has found himself touching down beyond the tryline regularly this season, with six in total, and throw in his success with the boot and you’re looking at a player capable of scoring the points to decide this contest.
The 23-year-old broke into the South African team recently, and if he can continue to menace opposition defences, the Cheetahs may yet have a chance of Super 15 glory.