The 2013 Super 15 Rugby tournament is nearly reaching its end, with Saturday's semifinal fixtures deciding who will meet in the August 3 final.
One of the matchups features the regular-season points leaders, the Waikato Chiefs, taking on a fellow New Zealand club in the Canterbury Crusaders. In the other showdown, the Blue Bulls are slated to face the ACT Brumbies.
Below is a brief preview and predictions for each contest, where it will be interesting to see if the two top teams of the year can get the job done at home and set up an epic clash in the final.
Note: Statistics and information, unless otherwise indicated, are courtesy of SuperXV.com.
Waikato Chiefs (1) vs. Canterbury Crusaders (4)
Although they finished the season with fewer overall points, there is plenty of reason for the Crusaders to be confident. After dismantling the Queensland Reds 38-9 in the qualifier on July 20, Canterbury gets to face a foe that it has beaten in each of the past two meetings.
Just three weeks ago, the Crusaders trounced the Chiefs 45-15, keyed by a momentous try from Kieran Read right before half-time.
Superstar fly-half Dan Carter is going to be hard for the hosting Waikato side to deny, and the physicality and relentlessness of full-backs Tom Marshall and Israel Dagg have bothered the Chiefs in the past, forcing them onto their heels.
The bye the Chiefs received could possibly cause them to come out flat, but hooker Hika Elliot puts to rest any concerns on that matter. Elliot recently hinted at a more attack-oriented mentality, per SuperXV.com:
We really need to step up in terms of our set-piece and bring an edge and a physicality to our game that people haven't seen this year. If we can do that I think we've got the potential in our backline to cut some shapes up in teams.
This should be quite a tight match given the run Canterbury is on against Waikato and the feeling the Crusaders must have in pummeling their way through the qualifier.
However, the best team in rugby will find a way to elevate its game, respond to Elliot's spurring and claim victory in front of the home crowd in Hamilton.
Prediction: Chiefs 27, Crusaders 25
Blue Bulls (2) vs. ACT Brumbies (3)
As it turns out, both so-called underdogs have a great chance at keeping their title aspirations afloat. The only other encounter the Bulls and Brumbies had in 2013 was won by the latter club, 23-20.
But the two sides will know the result of the first contest before they take the pitch, and if the Crusaders win, both of these teams will be playing for home-field advantage in the championship.
Even if that doesn't happen, the stakes couldn't be much higher here. The Brumbies squeaked by the Central Cheetahs in their last match by a score of 15-13.
Ryno Benjamin took it in for a try with less than a minute remaining, and five-eighth Riaan Smit of the Cheetahs lined up a conversion attempt that could have squared things up at 15. Unfortunately, his kick hit the post and allowed the Brumbies to advance.
The Bulls benefited as much as any club could have with the off week.
Twenty-year-old phenom centre Jan Serfontein is one of the marquee players who were on the mend, but he's been cleared to play. According to SuperXV.com, Serfontein is available along with speedster Francois Hougaard and lock position stalwart Flip van der Merwe, who is an intimidating presence at 6'6" and 260 pounds.
Now that the Bulls are recharged and back to full health, look for them to avenge the prior loss to the Brumbies and lock up a spot in the final in a comfortable victory.
Prediction: Bulls 35, Brumbies 23