Super 15 Rugby gets real on Saturday. After the sparring of the league format, just six teams remain, with one of them set to be crowned champions in two weeks’ time.
The Waikato Chiefs and Blue Bulls avoided the playoffs through their league endeavours, leaving the third to sixth placed teams to compete for a spot in the final four.
Whilst all the playoff sides have pressure on them to advance to the semifinals, it’s the Canterbury Crusaders and ACT Brumbies who have the greatest burden to bear.
The Crusaders have struggled all season for form as they seek a return to the days when Super Rugby success was practically guaranteed. Five years ago, they beat NSW Waratahs 20-12 to clinch the title in front of their own fans at the AMI Stadium. They haven’t won it since.
Their place as New Zealand’s greatest side is now under threat by the rise of current reigning champions, the Chiefs.
How the Crusaders would love to reassert themselves as their nation’s dominant force by knocking their newest rivals out of the tournament. They threw away a lead in their opening clash with the Chiefs this season, falling to a 28-19 defeat, but obliterated them in the return group match 43-15.
Before they contemplate any such showdown they must first defeat the Reds—the side who beat them to the 2011 final and prevented the Crusaders from reaffirming themselves on the world stage.
Expectation will fall on Dan Carter who goes head to head with Reds flyhalf Quade Cooper as the outcome is likely to depend on who has the higher conversion rate with a tight contest anticipated.
The Crusaders have already beaten the three sides that finished above them this season and, if they can dispatch of the Reds, will provide a stiff test for anyone left in the competition.
With the Reds likely to struggle in New Zealand, the Brumbies represent Australia’s best hopes of having a side in the final four. They last won the title in 2004 but they’ve proven this campaign that they can beat the best—the problem has been their consistency.
The high of beating the British and Irish Lions was quickly replaced by the low of losing their final match to Western Force 21-15.
The Brumbies have endured a rocky season. It started well enough as they kept pace at the top of the league with a series of commanding displays—the highlight being their opening day 24-6 victory over the Reds as fullback Jessie Mogg ran in two tries.
Although they’ve fallen away, they still have the chance of making the final should they defeat playoff debutants Central Cheetahs. The Cheetahs aren’t expected to cause the Australians many issues, but that adds extra pressure as the fans in the Canberra Stadium expect a walkover.
Should they progress as expected, any matches beyond the playoffs will likely be played away from home.
That shouldn’t prove too difficult, as their record on opposition turf is good. They even beat the Blues 20-13 at Eden Park this season, so write the Brumbies off at your peril.