Analysing the semis:
This is the greatest challenge the Crusaders have ever faced in Super rugby finals football, and who would it past the masters finding one more way to win when they run out at the cauldron that is Loftus Versfeld in Pretoria in the early hours of Sunday morning?
That's what it comes down to for the defending and six-times champions as they find themselves in the rare position of being underdogs in the second of Sunday morning's (NZ time) all-South African Rebel Sport Super 14 semifinals against the Bulls.
In the first, just a few hours earlier on Saturday afternoon (SA time), David Nucifora's embattled Blues will tackle the table-topping Sharks at Absa Stadium in Durban in an equally daunting fixture from a New Zealand perspective. It's going to take a major turnaround, in form, confidence and execution, for the Auks to have any shot at reaching their fifth final.
But the Crusaders first. Their record at this time of the year is nonpareil, and from that perspective alone it would be foolish to write them off. They've played in eight semifinals since Super rugby first started back in 1996, and won them all. They've also gone on to prevail in six of the eight finals they've played in since first making the showpiece game back in 1998. So they know how to win in finals football - we all know that.
But the Crusaders (who have played seven of their eight semis at home) have never had to win in South Africa at knockout time, and that alone makes this weekend's task a journey into the unknown.
We all know how tough it is to win in South Africa, doubly so it seems when the opposition is from New Zealand.
As great as Graham Henry's All Blacks have been in the three full seasons he's had with them, he's lost three out of four tests played in the republic. It's why the Boks will be a potential bogey team for them at this year's World Cup in France.
What's more, the record by all of the New Zealand sides in South Africa in this year's Super 14 has been nothing short of abysmal. From all the matches played, there's been just a solitary win (the Crusaders over the Cheetahs) and a draw (the Chiefs, also against the Cheets), suggesting there's been a major reversal in the trend between the two countries.
Then there's the form aspect to consider. Or rather, the lack of it. The Crusaders have none to speak of, having lost their last two matches to finish their campaign in surprisingly ignominious fashion.
It's also been notable that the heavy-hitters haven't been firing for the red and blacks. Dan Carter (when he's played) and Richie McCaw have yet to awaken from their post-reconditioning slumber? Likewise Chris Jack, Aaron Mauger and Leon MacDonald, who have yet to produce the sustained quality we know they're capable of.
Can they turn it on now?
You bet they can. These guys are champion performers who will recognise the situation for what it is, and will rise to the occasion. Plus, I'm expecting a big one from Rico Gear who will relish the likely user-friendly conditions and could be an X-factor figure in this semi.
Into uncharted territory
How much do we read into the Crusaders' finishing stumble? Not too much, I reckon. They've been without a few key performers the last fortnight, and that hasn't helped their cause. They're all back on board now, and settled into enough of a rhythm for one more of those famous one-in, all-in performances.
Plus, I just have a sneaking suspicion that this is the sort of challenge that these guys need this year. Let's face it, there's nothing at this level of football that these guys haven't done. And in some ways there's a staleness about all that success.
But now here they are in charted territory, forced to win probably back-to-back games in South Africa to claim yet another title. If that doesn't rattle their chain, then check their pulses, they might be dead.
One other thought before we move on to the Blues. The Bulls have been in imperious form of late, capped by last weekend's record-breaking 92-3 victory over the disgracefully soft Queensland Reds that saw them catapult into the runnerup slot.
But the Crusaders will be as far from the Reds as you get. They won't lie down in the forwards and simply let that Bulls pack steamroll their way to the line at will, and they certainly won't adopt the turnstile method of defence as Eddie's boys did when they downed tools on the job last weekend.
And in some ways the Bulls' run home might just have been a little too comfortable for their own good.
The Crusaders are the smartest team of the professional era, and they will have worked out a way to beat this huge, but often one-dimensional, side. Expect the Bulls to be taken out of their comfort zone by a Crusaders outfit using width, numbers to the breakdown and disciplined defence as their pillars.
Let's not forget either that the Crusaders have won three of their six matches at Loftus. Don't be surprised if they claim their fourth, and most significant, victory there in the early hours of Sunday morning.
I don't have quite the same optimism about the Blues who will clearly have to pull a rabbit out of the hat to down the Sharks. The loss of Luke McAlister to a hamstring injury was a devastating blow last weekend, and the shift of Isaia Toeava into second five is a major gamble by Nucifora.
The combination of Isa Nacewa and Toeva in the five-eighths is one by which the Blues will either live or die. With ball in hand they're excitement personified, and when you throw in the likes of Anthony Tuitavake, Doug Howlett and Rudi Wulf outside them, there is try-scoring potential aplenty in the visiting backline.
But how will they go under pressure? Neither has a renowned kicking game, and their option-taking will have to be spot-on, lest those relentless Sharks force them into the sort of errors they feast off.
The Blues must also muscle-up in the forwards and meet fire with fire there to have any chance. But they've got to do it in a disciplined way. Sadly there's been few signs thus far they have the concentration and poise to do that.
The Blues have also never played a semi in South Africa, and to prevail in their first they're going to have to leave behind the travails of the last month, where they've lost three of their last four matches (all to African sides) and had Ali Williams as an unnecessary disruption, and come up with something out of the box (or, at least, out of the Boks).
They're certainly capable. I just wouldn't put any money on it happening right now.
Sharks v Blues, Durban, Sunday, 1am
SHARKS: 15 Percy Montgomery, 14 Francois Steyn, 13 Waylon Murray, 12 Bradley Barritt/Adrian Jacobs, 11 JP Pietersen, 10 Butch James, 9 Ruan Pienaar; 8 Ryan Kankowski, 7 AJ Venter, 6 Jacques Botes, 5 Johann Muller, 4 Johan Ackermann, 3 BJ Botha, 2 John Smit (c), 1 Deon Carstens/Tendai Mtawarira.
Reserves: 16 Bismarck du Plessis, 17 Mtawarira/Patric Cilliers, 18 Albert van den Berg, 19 Warren Britz, Bob Skinstad, Rory Kockott, Jacobs/Odwa Ndungane.
BLUES: 15 George Pisi, 14 Doug Howlett, 13 Anthony Tuitavake, 12 Isaia Toeava, 11 Rudi Wulf, 10 Isa Nacewa, 9 Steve Devine; 8 Nick Williams, 7 Daniel Braid, 6 Jerome Kaino, 5 Troy Flavell (c), 4 Greg Rawlinson, 3 John Afoa, 2 Derren Witcombe, 1 Tony Woodcock. Reserves: 16 Keven Mealamu, 17 Nick White, 18 Angus Macdonald, 19 Justin Collins, 20 Taniela Moa, 21 David Holwell, 22 Ben Atiga.
Referee: Stuart Dickinson (Aus).
How we see it:
Everything says the Sharks should win this one. The great unknown is whether the Blues can rediscover their A game. It's going to take a major form reversal for the Kiwis to steal this from a Sharks side that has a pretty effective mix of forward grunt and backline dash. The home side will be sweating on the fitness of key loosehead prop Deon Carstens. Sharks by 12 or less.
Bulls v Crusaders, Pretoria, Sunday, 3.30am
BULLS: 15 Johan Roets; 14 Akhona Ndungane, 13 JP Nel, 12 Wynand Olivier, 11 Bryan Habana, 10 Derick Hougaard; 9 Fourie du Preez/Heini Adams, 8 Pierre Spies, 7 Wikus van Heerden, 6 Pedrie Wannenburg, 5 Victor Matfield (c), 4 Danie Rossouw, 3 Rayno Gerber, 2 Gary Botha, 1 Gurthro Steenkamp.
Reserves: 16 Jaco Engels, 17 Danie Thiart, 18 Bakkies Botha, 19 Derick Kuun, 20 Adams/ Nicholas Eyre, 21 Morne Steyn, 22 Jaco van der Westhuyzen.
CRUSADERS: 15 Leon MacDonald, 14 Rico Gear, 13 Casey Laulala, 12 Aaron Mauger, 11 Caleb Ralph, 10 Daniel Carter, 9 Kevin Senio; 8 Mose Tuiali'i, 7 Richie McCaw (c), 6 Reuben Thorne, 5 Chris Jack, 4 Ross Filipo, 3 Campbell Johnstone, 2 Corey Flynn, 1 Ben Franks.
Reserves: 16 Ti'i Paulo, 17 Wyatt Crockett, 18 Michael Paterson, 19 Kieran Read, 20 Andy Ellis, 21 Stephen Brett, 22 Johnny Leo'o.
Referee: Matt Goddard (Aus).
How we see it:
Should be a ripper. The Bulls have looked unstoppable of late, but can they survive the acid test against the most accomplished side this competition has ever seen? No one's made finals football their own like the red and blacks, and they have the chance to add another special chapter at the intimidating Loftus Versfeld. Richie, Dan and co will be pumped. Crusaders by 12 or less.
Pictures from this year's match at the Jade Stadium. The captain was Corey Flynn (Richie and some of his mates were in conditionning camp!) and from last year's semi final (still in NZ)
NB: the link below is a OneNews report about the Crusaders before the semi.
Photos du match aller en Nouvelle Zelande. Le capitaine du debut de saison etait Corey Flynn, notre Captain et ses copains etaient en "camp de conditionnement" (la traduction est vraiment moche, mais il fallait que j'essaie!) et de la demi finale de l'an dernier (toujours en NZ)
NB: le lien en dessous amene a un reportage de OneNews sur la preparation de la demi finale par l'equipe de Canterbury.