5 Key Battles for Super Rugby Qualifiers
Saturday's Super Rugby qualifying finals see two interesting matchups. Third place-finishers the Sharks, take on the Highlanders in Durban. The late kick-off sees a re-run of last year's Super Rugby Final, as the Brumbies and the Chiefs fight to remain in the competition.
These four teams will have to do it the hard way, if they are to win the Super Rugby title. Finishing outside the top two gives these sides an extra game to win before the semi-finals the following weekend.
These qualifying finals represent the first battles in what has become a prolonged war of a Super Rugby campaign. Win this weekend and these teams will have a well-rested Waratahs or Crusaders side waiting for them in the next round.
They cannot look too far ahead, though. First there are some key battles that must be won in the qualifiers.
5. Home Advantage
The format of the Super Rugby qualifiers affords the third and fourth-finishing teams home advantage in this round. This means that the Sharks and the Brumbies will have the added boost of playing at home this weekend.
The Sharks have lost only two of their eight home games this year. They had a run of six consecutive victories in Durban at the start of the season. However, they finished the regular season with two home losses. One of these came against the opponents on Saturday, the Highlanders, losing 18-34 in April.
The Brumbies have an even better home record, losing only their opening match in Canberra. The last time the Chiefs visited the Canberra Stadium, they left on the wrong end of a 41-23 defeat. The defending champions beat the Blues in Auckland last week, though. Will they be able to keep their season alive with another away victory.
Silencing the home crowd is one the biggest battles the travelling teams will face. This can be achieved by winning their key on-field battles.
Now that Super Rugby has entered the knockout stage, game management is more important than ever. The half-backs must dictate the tempo of the game to suit their side. Most importantly of all, the fly-half must make sure his team plays in the right areas of the pitch, and he kicks his goals.
The importance of having an in-form fly-half is clear to see. The top two qualifiers, the Waratahs and the Crusaders, have two stand-out No. 10s; Bernard Foley and Dan Carter.
The battle between the Chiefs' Aaron Cruden and the Brumbies' Matt Toomua will be a hard-fought one. Cruden struggled with his international form but has recently been at the heart of his team's late charge for the finals. Toomua marked his return from injury with three tries against the Force last week.
With Christian Lealiifano kicking the goals and taking pressure off Toomua, the 24-year-old has the freedom to go out and play. This could give him the edge over Cruden in Canberra.
The Sharks have a fly-half who seems to have a total disregard for pressure. Francois Steyn can land place-kicks and drop goals from over 60 metres. He has skills that not many men can match.
The Highlander attempting to go toe-to-toe with Steyn is Hayden Parker. Having Aaron Smith inside him at scrum-half will encourage him to bring the ball to the line. However, the 24-year-old will struggle to cope with the weapons Francois Steyn possesses.
Playing front-foot rugby is key to progression through the knockout stages. Getting over the gain-line gets your team penalties, points and, ultimately, try-scoring opportunities. This is the point where the top quality ball-carriers separate themselves from the bunch. They make the hard yards and rally their team around them.
Brumbies flanker Scott Fardy is capable of making good metres from tough starting positions. This skill could be needed against defending champions the Chiefs. Ben Mowen is another in the Brumbies back-row that will test the Chiefs' defensive line. A fantastic athlete, Mowen uses his footwork to find the weak shoulder, rather than running over players.
The pick of the Chiefs carriers is Liam Messam. Another formidable athlete who possesses more than power and pace. He has an astute rugby brain, running smart lines off the initial ball-carrier. Messam will need to disrupt Mowen if the Chiefs are to have a shot at the semi finals.
The Sharks ball-carriers blow the Highlanders out of the water. The combination of Willem Alberts and Ryan Kankowski is a scary one. Kankowski must be the fastest No. 8 in the game. Add the bulldozing Du Plessis brothers to the mix and you would have to think the Highlanders will struggle.
Nasi Manu is their man to watch but even his big-carrying may not be enough to win this battle.
Knockout games are won by the team that best takes their chances. Try-scoring opportunities have to be converted into five- and seven-point scores. When trying to separate teams, it can all come down to who has the best finishers.
The Sharks have been rather toothless in attack this year. They have notched only 29 tries and their primary running threat is Springbok JP Pietersen.
Their opponents, the Highlanders have crossed the whitewash 39 times and possess some potent running threats. Ben Smith returns for them at full-back and Malakai Fekitoa has been incisive in the centres. If it comes down to a battle of the backs, the Highlanders hold the trump cards.
The Chiefs and the Brumbies have both been free-scoring this season. The Australian side just nudge it on the try count, 49-45. Indeed, the Aussies have three men in the top 10 try-scorers this season. Matt Toomua, Jesse Mogg and Robbie Coleman all have seven tries.
The Chiefs will give it a good go but expect the Brumbies fire-power to prove too much in the end.
Solid scrums have always traditionally been seen as essential to rugby success. However, the four teams in the qualifying finals are in the bottom half of the table for scrum success rates. Even table-toppers the Waratahs trail in the scrum stats.
The actual figure for scrum success tells us more than the position it puts each team in the table. Most teams win between 85 and 90 percent of their own put-ins. The Brumbies this year have won only 76 percent of their own scrums. This is a weakness the Chiefs front row of Jamie Mackintosh, Mahonri Schwalger and Ben Tameifuna can exploit.
The Sharks have a powerful front row with international class. The Du Plessis brothers pack down alongside Thomas du Toit and will give the Sharks backs a real platform to play. The Highlanders front row is not as battle-hardened and could encounter problems in Durban.
Scrum success in these qualifiers should be seen as prevention of set piece penalties. Winning this battle with the opposition front row and the referee will allow the other battles to play out nicely.