Crusaders vs. Sharks: 5 Key Battles for Super Rugby Semi-Final
The Super Rugby playoff campaign continues to rage on this Saturday, and after triumphing over the Highlanders in last weekend's qualifier, the Sharks now face a daunting trip to the Crusaders.
Head coach Jake White will still be ruing the fact that it could have easily been his side enjoying a home semi-final on Saturday, but they will have to make do with the cards dealt their way, and it's a difficult hand to play.
That being said, the Sharks managed to triumph on their last visit to Christchurch two months ago, earning a dogged 30-25 victory at the AMI Stadium despite playing more than 60 minutes with 14 men.
However, the landscape has transformed for both sides since then, and here we run through which head-to-head matchups will have the biggest impact on proceedings.
1. Nemani Nadolo vs. JP Pietersen
Last Saturday's win over the Highlanders saw JP Pietersen line up in a less familiar outside centre role, but this weekend signals a return to the wing as White has a number of selections to mull over in his back line.
Some of those we'll discuss in more depth later, but with Pietersen returning to his most natural position on the flank, Nemani Nadolo will be the figure looking to ensure it's not a pleasant reunion.
As Opta's Russ Petty illustrates, the Crusaders behemoth is an asset of his own in midfield, but the Crusaders' resources mean that his significant frame is utilised at its optimum out wide:
Nadolo has started 10 games at centre for Fiji. Scored a try in 9 of those matches. http://t.co/J46ILfVcWG— Russ Petty (@rpetty80) June 16, 2014
It's an intriguing battle for Pietersen, who won't feel intimidated by his opposite man all that often, but the impending test of having to restrain Fiji's powerhouse—not to mention attempting to expose Nadolo and provide an attacking presence himself—is a mountainous task.
2. Matt Todd vs. Willem Alberts
The Sharks have been far from try-scoring specialists this season, with only one team (Bulls) recording fewer tries than them (29), so it's impressive that openside Willem Alberts has scored three.
The South African bruiser will be upset to see Richie McCaw returning to the Crusaders line-up this weekend, but his main concern for the semi-final is Matt Todd, a man who's been tiding things over in the back row during his teammate's absence.
The Press (h/t Stuff.co.nz) quoted coach Todd Blackadder this week in giving Todd the green light to proceed in the No. 7 jersey, irrespective of a McCaw return:
Just talking to Richie, he said he's not so hung-up on the No. 7 jersey. He just wants to make a contribution, no matter where he's selected. I would be reluctant to switch Matt Todd out and Richie, if he had to, would play six.
It's deserved praise for Todd, too, especially after he scored a brace in the Crusaders' last outing, a 34-8 thumping of the Highlanders.
Alberts is as physically domineering an opposite number as Todd is likely to face, and his presence peeling off the back of every breakdown will be a test that requires an endless stream of stamina on the Crusader's part.
3. Dan Carter vs. Frans Steyn
One of those notable changes in the Sharks' back line mentioned earlier sees Frans Steyn move out of the No. 10 position and into his more suited centre hub.
Even in his natural headquarters, however, Steyn comes up against one of the best in the business, with Dan Carter retained at inside centre, giving Colin Slade his chance to progress in the fly-half duties.
Recent weeks have seen Carter help limit the influences of stars such as Malakai Fekitoa and Ma'a Nonu, showing himself to be the consummate professional we all know he is, regardless of where he starts.
Steyn, like Carter, brings a technically sound kicking factor to the midfield, but it's undoubtedly the latter who will be more of a threat when poking the ball in behind the Sharks' rush defence.
While his jersey may say No. 12, Carter maintains a reserved and unselfish character at centre, putting any team needs before his own at such a pivotal point in the campaign.
The question is whether Steyn can bring as sophisticated a mind to the position.
4. Owen Franks vs. Thomas du Toit
White will once again place his faith in 19-year-old Thomas du Toit this weekend, after it came to light that Tendai Mtawarira has yet to recover from the neck injury that's kept him off the pitch of late.
Du Toit proved against the Highlanders just what a handful he can be, age withstanding, and the teenager undoubtedly has international prospects lined up for his future.
Speaking of international experience, 57-times capped All Black Owen Franks will seek to root out the difference between a novice and a journeyman when he takes on Du Toit.
The Crusaders' tighthead helped his pack win all but one scrum on their own feed last time out, and with some of the Southern Hemisphere's finest lock figures among their ranks, the line-out is also a potential avenue for Saturday's hosts to exploit.
However, the Sharks pack is a monstrous form in its own right, and Du Toit will have received stellar mentoring en route to becoming a threat of his own, making for an enticing clash between old(er) and young.
5. Colin Slade vs. Pat Lambie
With Carter at inside centre, Colin Slade once again has a hefty responsibility at first five-eighth, where he'll look to expose Pat Lambie's lack in match fitness, having only very recently returned from injury.
Last Saturday saw Lambie make his first appearance after four months out with injury, and Brenton Chelin of SA Rugby Mag quotes the Sharks' U-19 assistant coach, Butch James, in backing the technician to slot back into the starting XV for the semi:
I think that you should always try get your best team out on the field. It's a tough one for the coach, he knows what's best for the team and how he wants to play it. They're both unbelievable players, capable of turning the game in their team's favour. It's going to be a difficult decision to make, but I'm sure it's a situation that Jake doesn't mind finding himself in.
I don't think it'll be too difficult for him to fit back in. He's got an old head on a young body. He's got some experience in these situations, especially in Currie Cups, where he's performed well and won big matches before. It will be interesting to see how Jake plays it because I'm not sure how Lwazi [Mvovo] is doing after he went off at the weekend. If he doesn't make it through the week, Pat will just slot in and everyone will just shift out one.
Slade hasn't always been the reliable character the Crusaders have sought at No. 10, but a keen running mind does give the playmaker a sound advantage over some of the fly-halves he's come up against.
Lambie is known to be capable of great things with ball in hand, too, but the question remains over his fitness and whether he's the player who left the field in March.