Super Rugby Semifinals: Who Will Go Through?
After more then four months of intense rugby which has involved brutal derbies, travelling across time zones and player fatigue, the end is in sight.
It has been the longest ever installment of Super Rugby, and four teams remain. Each team will have the mindset that all they need to do is win two more matches, and this is indeed the case. It is as simple as that.
We have two mouth-watering clashes on Saturday, starting off with the Reds entertaining the unpredictable Blues. Later on in the day, the Stormers will play host to the Crusaders in front of what is sure to be a vociferous crowd.
What makes this weekend's semifinals so exciting is that we have two very even encounters in which anything can happen. To my recollection, I think this year's Super Rugby semifinals will be harder to predict then any of recent history in that there truly is no clear favorite.
The Reds, although topping the log, have gone off form in recent weeks with a loss to the Brumbies and an unconvincing win against the Force. However, the away win against the Chiefs will have galvanized them for the playoffs.
The Stormers will have self-doubts about their ability to overcome the "big games," having already lost three times at Newlands this season (to the Reds, Bulls and under-strength Crusaders). Their team selection already indicates the conservative/defensive game-plan they intend to adopt.
The Crusaders have spent more miles in the air than on the land in this competition, and their ability to have overcome mitigating circumstances (such as travel, playing away from home, events in their home town) is certainly commendable. Will they be able to translate this self-belief into belief on the field?
The Blues have been erratic this season, especially in recent weeks having lost to the Reds, Stormers, Chiefs and Crusaders. They were able to overcome the Highlanders and Waratahs to qualify, but they will have to dig deep if they are to win against the Reds.
Many questions will be asked, and they will all be answered this weekend. Take a look at the slideshow to see my PREVIEWS AND PREDICTIONS for these games.
SEMI FINAL 1: Reds vs Blues
Will Cooper be able to guide his team to a home final?
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Ewen McKenzie has transformed this Reds team from potential "wooden-spoon" winners to potential Championship winners.
The Reds were languishing second bottom on the log in 2009. In 2010, they narrowly missed out on a playoff spot.
Now in 2011, they've surged to the top of the table in what has truly been a magnificent transformation reminiscent of the Bulls of the early 2000s.
The Reds are in a perfect position to secure a home-final, and they will be backing themselves to get the job done against the unpredictable Blues. Their home form has been excellent this year, losing only one match against the Brumbies.
However, they will be wary of the fact that the Blues came close to beating them in Brisbane, only losing 37-31.
The Blues will be looking to improve from their two wins against the Waratahs and Highlanders and will want to quickly forget their midseason slump in which they lost four games on the trot.
They showed some good touches against the Higlanders but will have to show a vast improvement if they hope to upset the Reds.
This game will be won or lost in the performance of the half-backs. Brett and Mathewson have a massive point to prove against Cooper and Genia, who have been the best half-back pairing in the competition by some distance.
Brett especially will have to have a good game to nullify the threat of Cooper. If Brett can do this and get his star backline moving, the Blues will be in with a good chance.
The Reds will be looking to do what they've done all season: let the forwards soak in the pressure to free up Genia and Cooper to control the game. Don't expect anything different on Saturday. If the Reds can pull off their game plan, they could win quite comfortably.
This is going to be a very close encounter, but I expect an exciting, fairly free-flowing game.
It is a tough one to call, but you have to back the Reds to pull it together when it really counts. Expect them to win by about eight points.
SEMI FINAL 2: Stormers vs Crusaders
Will Koster be able to fill the physical void left by Vermeleun?
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If you're expecting a free-flowing game of beautiful rugby, you've come to the wrong place.
This game will be a brutal, ugly encounter between two teams that will both be wanting to prove a point. The weather outlook for Saturday also indicates there may be rain, so it is the team who can adapt best that will have the better chance of winning.
The Stormers will come into the game as favorites, but only slightly, and this is mainly because of home-ground advantage. But as we have seen this season, the Stormers have struggled in crunch games at Newlands.
They will be looking to put this to bed and put in the complete performance against quality opposition that has eluded them all season.
The Crusaders have shown that they are a championship side, having to play all their matches away from their home in Christchurch and have consistently produced performances on the road. Playing away from home will not phase them at all, especially not at Newlands.
The Crusaders won 20-14 there earlier in the year, and they did this amid a mounting injury crisis before and during the game.
It should also be worth noting that Kiwi teams, in particular the Crusaders, have a strong support base in the Cape, so expect a lot of vocal support for them at Newlands.
There will be many key matchups in this game. Both teams have a very strong pack of forwards who will be looking to gain supremacy in the set pieces and at the collisions at the breakdown, where the interpretation of Craig Joubert will have a big say in the outcome.
The battle of the loose-trios will be vital. The Crusaders will be happy to have skipper Richie McCaw recalled, but one can't help but feel sorry for Matt Todd who has been exceptional this season.
The Stormers will be without Duane Vermeleun and will certainly miss his physicality and will have to rely on youngster Nic Koster to step in.
Koster will bring a different dimension to the game but will have his hands full trying to contain the experienced Kieran Reed.
The midfield battle between De Villiers/Fourie and Williams/Fruean is also vital and both will be looking to gain dominance against the other. Peter Grant will have to be cool and calm under pressure against Carter and will need to kick all the points on offer.
This match really is a coin toss, and there are so many questions to answer: Will the Stormers be able to win a big match under pressure at Newlands? Will the Crusaders continue their run in the face of adversity?
I've been struggling with this game all week, but I think that in the end, the Stormers will hope to have learnt from their home defeats, and after the final whistle blows, they will win an extremely close encounter by about six points.