Super Rugby Playoffs Preview: How Will Each Team Stack Up?
The Super Rugby Playoffs are finally upon us, and only six teams remain. These being the Reds, Stormers, Crusaders, Blues, Waratahs and Sharks.
2011 sees the first time the competition will take a new format, straying away from the traditional top four semifinals then final format.
This year, it's more complicated, so just to clear up any confusion, I will quickly run through how it all works.
The top two qualifiers (the Reds and Stormers) get the first week off. The third and sixth placed teams will play each other (Crusaders and Sharks), and the fourth and fifth placed teams will also meet (Blues and Waratahs), with the highest placed team getting the home game.
The two winners will then advance to the semifinals, where the highest placed winner will take on the Stormers in Cape Town and the lowest placed winner plays the Reds in Brisbane.
The winners of this will meet in the final, where the champions will be crowned.
One of the more interesting things about this year's playoffs will be this new format and how it impacts the outcome of the competition.
For example, is it really an advantage to have a week off after qualifying top? In different competitions where this format has been used, it has seen the sides that played the week before carry momentum through, while the teams that had the rest struggle to get up. Whether this is an issue in Super Rugby is a different question. It could be that due to the extra travel, a week off may be a much needed refresher. Only time will tell.
How the teams will match up is, as always, another big question. While the round-robin gives us a good idea, teams can get up for the finals while others have gone cold, meaning that it will come down largely to who's the best on the day.
In this article, I will look at each team's chances and how the new format will effect them individually, while also looking at each team's strengths and weaknesses in relation to the others. This will make the way forward clearer for the six teams who will do battle in what promises to be an epic playoffs series.
The top qualifying Reds were the goods during the round-robin, losing just three of 13 games. They notched impressive wins over the Stormers in Cape Town and the Crusaders at home in what was arguably the most controversial and best game of the competition.
They are spearheaded by their Halfback-First Five combination of Will Genia and Quade Cooper, a duo who pose a threat to any opposition.
Cooper has been in scintillating form this year, cutting his opponents to bits with his elusive running and delivering some brilliant passes that only he could, and would, throw. And that is key. He's not afraid to try things. While there may be other players in the competition that could throw the passes Cooper does, none are game enough to try it in a pressure situation in a game. This makes Cooper especially dangerous, both to his opponents but also to his own team. His creativity at times could be described as reckless and while he is brilliant, it only takes one too-ambitious pass to go wrong and cost his team the game. Another negative comes in his defence, but the Reds seem to have become adept at hiding him, meaning he will be able to work his magic on attack without being such a liability at the other end.
Inside Cooper, Will Genia will be just as much of a threat, with his unmatched ability to run around the fringes. His form this year has been the best of any halfback in the competition, and he will be invaluable to the Reds as they make a run for their first title.
Outside these two, they have some dangerous backs, and despite a few injuries, they will be lethal if let loose, as they have been all season.
Up front, they are much improved and have shown that they aren't going to be the push-over many thought they would. Their loose forwards play the game as hard as any, while their tight five is solid without being brilliant. This would be the area I would look to attack them in, as a well drilled, physical forward pack should be able to get the better of them and deny Genia and Cooper of good ball.
The main thing they have going for them is that they will play every game at home. This will serve as a huge advantage, particularly against international opponents. South African teams aren't nearly as hard to beat outside of their homeland, which could be enough for the Reds should it come to a finals showdown against the Stormers. I would also back them to beat the Blues and their mortal enemies, the Waratahs. But a rematch with the Crusaders would be a dream final, one which both teams will undoubtedly be eyeing up as a very likely possibility and what a game it would be.
They may have their critics, but it's certainly the Reds best chance in many years to win their first Super Rugby Title.
South African Conference Champions, the Stormers, will also have the first week off, filling the second spot in the 2011 Super Rugby Playoffs.
As far as toughness goes, there are none tougher than the Stormers. They have a very strong, uncompromising forward back who will look to literally smash any opponent.
Their tight five can be brutal, spearheaded by towering lock Andries Bekker, who is a very good lineout jumper while also offering a lot around the field. This allows their loose forwards to be dominant around the field. Schalk Burger continues to lead from the front, while Francios Louw has been nothing short of sensational with his ability to effect turnovers.
These players will play well. That is almost certain. The Stormers forwards have been amongst the most consistent players in the competition over the past two years.
It is how their backs perform that will determine how far the Stormers progress.
A backline which includes Ricky Januarie, Peter Grant, Jean De Villiers, Jacque Fourie, Juan De Jongh, Bryan Habana and Gio Aplon should be one of the most lethal in the competition on paper.
Unfortunately for the Stormers, games aren't played on paper. For one reason or another, these players don't always click and are unable to let loose in the way other backlines do. Like their forwards, they are very strong on defence, letting few tries through, but consistently threatening on attack has been an issue.
Certainly, they have improved as the season has progressed. But a team with these names shouldn't be relying so heavily on the boot of Peter Grant to score them points.
In Jean De Villiers and Jacque Fourie, they have two of the best midfielders in the world, along with arguably the best reserve in the competition, Juan De Jongh. This will be their strength. Expect these men to create opportunities for the likes of Habana and Aplon to finish out wide.
They will still be a tough nut to crack whether they manage to do this or not. They are so strong defensively, and if they can limit their opponents' points, they will be able to get by as long as Peter Grant has his kicking boots on. But the more dangerous they are on attack, the more the opposition will struggle to stop them, and with the talent they've got, they will be hard to stop.
Finishing second, the Stormers are guaranteed at least one home game. This is likely to be against the Crusaders in what will be a rematch of their round-robin thriller, where the Crusaders pipped them in the last 20 minutes. And from there, who knows? Should they have to go to Brisbane to face the Reds in the Final, they will undoubtedly find it hard, but they have shown they can win on the road and have every chance to come away with the title.
The most successful franchise in the history of Super Rugby will be looking to add an eighth championship to their name.
On paper, they are arguably the most complete team, but as was the case with the Stormers, games aren't played on paper.
It's hard to judge just how good the Crusaders are. At one stage, they were playing as well as anyone has ever played in this competition, but as the competition has progressed and injuries have intervened, they have become less dominant.
That's not to say they haven't been good, just not untouchable, as it seemed they were in the middle stages of the competition.
Up front, they will be tough. Their tight five is as good as anyone's, with Wyatt Crockett and Owen Franks playing the best rugby of their careers and have been close to the two best props in the competition. In the loose, they have been just as good, with Kieran Read, Richie McCaw, George Whitelock and rookie Matt Todd forming the best looseforward trio in the competition.
Their backs have too been lethal. Daniel Carter is getting back to his best, while Zac Guilford has been the best winger in New Zealand.
The one question remains that of which everyone asked at the start of the season. How will their midfield perform?
Sonny Bill Williams has been the most publicised player in New Zealand over the past 12 months, and the way he pairs with Robbie Fruean could make or break the Crusaders championship run.
Williams has huge potential, and his trademark offload has made him famous across the rugby world. He still hasn't convinced me though. While he has been brilliant time and time again, he has yet to do it against a top opponent. It seems whenever he comes up against a top team, he will go into a shell and look to distribute rather than create in the way he normally does. However, it is essential that he doesn't do this in this playoffs series, as his ability to create will be of great importance to the Crusaders title challenge.
The other half of the midfield comes in the strong running Robbie Fruean. Fruean seemed almost unstoppable for the first half of the competition, but hasn't done much since and needs to step up in the coming weeks.
Ironically, should they beat the Sharks this weekend, they will have a harder run in than the winner of the fourth and fifth placed match. They will have to travel to South Africa to take on a formidable Stormers side. While they have already won there this year, it is a tough ask to do it on such short notice. Only one team has ever gone to South Africa and won a playoffs game. And even if they do win this, they will have to come back and play the Reds in Brisbane the next week.
Normally, I would find it hard to pick against the Crusaders, but the way the draw works, it will be a very tough ask for them to beat the top two qualifiers on the road in consecutive weeks.
For most of the competition, the Blues looked the goods and seemed to be very much title contenders.
But a recent form slump has put that into question and run of bad performances sees the Blues enter the playoffs ice cold, despite being the fourth qualifier.
They possess all the flair and unpredictability of a typical Blues side, with backs capable of cutting others to bits. However, they are also capable of making mistakes, and many at that.
Their forwards have been much better this year than of recent years, and they boast a good lineout while also having a hard edge on defence through All Black Blindside Flanker, Jerome Kaino.
This weekend, they take on the Waratahs for the right to advance through to the next round, where they will take on either the Reds or the Stormers depending on what happens in the other game.
After comprehensively beating the men from Sydney earlier in the Sydney, the Blues will take confidence into this weekend, but whether they will win depends largely on whether they can get up again.
They showed glimpses of form against a ice cold Highlanders outfit last week and should be able to give the Waratahs grief up front. If their backs can perform the way we all know they can, they will bury them and will progress onto the next round without breaking a sweat. However, if they can't get it right, it will be a very long 80 minutes for the Blues, and they will have to wait yet another year to try to add a fourth championship to their name.
From there, it would be surprising to see the Blues win. Whether they have the opportunity to prove me wrong in this depends largely what Blues team turns up on Saturday.
Like the Blues, the Waratahs have had a mixed season. At times, they have looked very good, while they have also played some truly awful games which became the subject of much criticism.
So, what does this mean for their playoff chances?
It is unlikely that they will feature in the Final, but if they put in a good performance on Saturday, they may well find themselves in the semifinals next weekend.
They have a dangerous backline who are capable of scoring tries. None more so than livewire Kurtley Beale, who has been absolutely superb of late and is as fast as anyone in the competition.
It is up front that they will struggle. They have some good looseforwards, but their tight five will struggle and will be their downfall when it comes to playing the top three sides.
The Blues are definitely beatable, although it will take a huge improvement on their performance the last time the two teams met.
A lot depends on how the Blues play. But if the Waratahs can match them up front, then they will give themselves every opportunity to win.
The Sharks have a tough task, having to travel to New Zealand to play the Crusaders to win through to the semifinals. And they will undoubtedly struggle. But one would be foolish to write them off just yet.
Like most South African teams, their strength lies in their forwards. They have a very good set of front rowers while also having some strong running loose forwards. Willem Alberts has stood out in particular, while Tendai Mtawarira has also impressed.
In the backs, First Five Patrick Lambie has been a big improver and has looked good for a young player. He runs well and directs play while also possessing a good kicking game. Out wide, they have two flyers in JP Pietersen and Lwazi Mvovo who could both be gamebreakers should they get them good ball.
They come off a good win over the in-form Bulls in what was effectively a knockout game for both teams. This shows they have the talent to beat the Crusaders or any of the other teams in the top six.
But they will do it, though, simply because of the travel. They struggled in New Zealand earlier in the season when they played the Chiefs and were dealt to by a rampant Crusaders side in London a week later.
Just as the New Zealand and Australian teams will struggle in South Africa, the Sharks will struggle in New Zealand. Don't write them off, but they will do well to win on Friday night.
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