Canterbury Crusaders have dominated Super Rugby since its inception with seven titles from just 17 tournaments but their reputation as the game’s fiercest opponents is in danger if they fall in this year’s playoffs.
Likewise, five-time finalists ACT Brumbies, who looked set to qualify automatically for the semifinals, must quickly recover after their shocking loss against Western Force in Round 20.
A decade of success from 1998 to 2008 made the Crusaders the most feared side in rugby union, but for the five years that followed it has been tricky to come by.
The rise to prominence of their New Zealand rivals Waikato Chiefs and South Africa’s Blue Bulls—the two sides currently enjoying a week off after finishing first and second in the league respectively—has pushed the Crusaders into the rugby wilderness.
They returned in 2011 to reassert themselves back on the Southern Hemisphere map but came up against their 2013 playoff opponents, the Queensland Reds, in the final who dispatched of them 18-13.
The Reds have struggled for consistency all season but the return of fly-half Quade Cooper, who inspired them to the 2011 title, presents a serious problem for the Crusaders ahead of their showdown in Christchurch.
If Cooper can find form with his boot, the Crusaders must not give away stupid penalties or allow him to float within striking range of their goalposts. Any opportunity for openside flanker Matt Todd to land a hefty early challenge to unsettle his rival would go down well with teammates and fans alike.
Much has been made of the Brumbies victory over the British and Irish Lions—the first provincial side to beat them since South Africa's Northern Transvaal in 1997—but their inability to recover and seal their progress to the semifinals was perhaps even more striking.
The Brumbies success over the Lions was meant to be the boost they needed to regain the Super Rugby title they last won nearly ten years ago.
They now face a Central Cheetahs side ready to play in their inaugural playoff match. You can expect the South Africans to approach the game in Canberra with no fear whatsoever as they seek to continue their remarkable season.
Rather oddly, the fixture computer kept the four playoff sides separate in the league stage meaning they will have to rely on video evidence, and what they garnered in previous years, as preparation.
That should create some nervy opening minutes as the teams try to suss each other out. But if the Crusaders and Brumbies don’t click into gear early, their rivals will sense an opportunity and the tournament giants will be sent crashing out.