Thursday, May 03, 2007

McCaw relishes the big-game feel (Marc Hinton) 03.05.2007,,14646-7283560,00.html

Richie McCaw calls it "playing for keeps" time and you sense that the Crusaders skipper is poised to lift his game a notch or two in response as his side hosts the Chiefs in Friday night's Super 14 round-robin closer in Christchurch.

It's a salivating contest at Jade with both sides having it all to play for as the regular season comes to a close. McCaw's Crusaders are guaranteed a semifinal (the only side in that position going into the round) but must win to clinch the all-important home advantage.

The Chiefs, on the other hand, must claim victory (and probably a bonus point with it) and then rely on one of either the Blues or Bulls falling over as the rest of the weekend plays out. They're toeing a much finer line indeed.

So it's tight and it's taut and it's tense as six sides enter the final weekend with a chance of securing a playoff berth, and hosting rights also up for grabs as the final pecking order is established.

In an interview with Yahoo!Xtra Rugby the All Blacks captain conceded that last weekend's defeat to the ACT Brumbies in Canberra had tightened up the situation somewhat. But he added that with the Chiefs coming to town on the back of a run of six victories in seven matches, this was always going to be a contest with plenty riding on it.

"I don't think it's changed how we approach this week really," said McCaw. "It's probably quite good that it's all like that and you genuinely prepare properly. It's going to make it interesting. You play for keeps now, and that's why the intensity has lifted.

"We've got a home semi to play for and that means a lot. Teams are getting desperate but hopefully we're going be as desperate as well."

McCaw was part of Graham Henry's All Black reconditioning programme that took him out of the Super 14 equation for the first half of the round-robin. And since his return to action it's fair to say the man rated the best No 7 in world rugby has been slowly working his way back to top form. It's been a similar story with Dan Carter who misses this week's match with a neck injury.

But you suspect that this is just the sort of match that could springboard McCaw's game up a level or two. For starters he's going to be up against his old sparring partner Marty Holah and the All Blacks skipper always has been a man for the big occasion.

Ability to put you under pressure

And, really, they don't come much bigger than this, with the six-time champions in with a chance to secure home advantage throughout the finals, and the in-form Chiefs bidding to complete their Cinderella-goes-to-the-ball fairytale.

"You could see their confidence building, and they're starting to believe in their ability and what they've been doing," says McCaw of the Chiefs' run from the competition cellar right into the playoff mix.

"They've got some players who have got the ability to put any team under pressure, and we understand it's going to be a big threat to us and we've got to prepare as such. They're starting to put it together, and have given themselves a chance which perhaps previously they hadn't."

But still, for all the shakiness of last week's Canberra hiccup, and for all the tightness of the finish, the Crusaders still enter the final round in a familiar spot atop the standings, and in control of their own destiny as they look to extend a remarkable 26-game home winning streak .

Notes McCaw: "Out of any position that's the best one be in. At the start of the season if you'd said going into the last weekend you get a chance to play for a home semi we would have been pretty happy. "We've given ourselves a chance to do that and now we've got to take the opportunity to play well. It comes down to the next two or three weeks - this is what all the rest of the season has been for."

Talking to McCaw you sense a real disappointment at the flat performance in Canberra that saw the Crusaders nudged in a tryless encounter. And it wasn't the inability to beat the Brumbies defensive line that rankled most, it was the high number of errors that were toted up by the red and blacks.

"You get frustrated with that, and we're looking forward to making amends," he told Yahoo!Xtra Rugby. "The big thing is getting over the game. We've got a six-day turnaround and we've got to make sure we're ready to play like we've been doing all year. We've got to do it without making mistakes. Everyone's pretty excited."

McCaw expects a clash of playoff intensity, though he concedes that the Chiefs bring a different sort of threat than say the more defence-oriented Brumbies did.

"If you give them ball they can throw it around and use those guys with skill. Then it would be a tough night I would suggest."

So how do you contain a side with the attacking threats of the Chiefs, from Sione Lauaki and Liam Messam in the loose to Sitiveni Sivivatu and Mils Muliaina from deep?

"You don't give them the ball," said McCaw. "That's always the way with guys like that. If you can shut them out at set piece time that's what you do.

"We just don't want to give them ball on a plate where we haven't got a set line of defence. If you allow things to open up and they run off each other, that's when it gets tough.

"There's no real secret to it - you just can't allow them time and space."

Expect McCaw to lead a much more focused Crusaders charge this week as two styles go head to head on Jade. Clearly the Crusaders are ready for anything the flamboyant Chiefs throw at them.

It remains to be seen whether they're enough on top of their game to counter it.

CRUSADERS: 15 Leon MacDonald, 14 Rico Gear, 13 Casey Laulala, 12 Aaron Mauger, 11 Caleb Ralph, 10 Stephen Brett, 9 Andy Ellis; 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 Ben May, 18 Michael Paterson, 19 Kieran Read, 20 Kahn Fotuali'i, 21 Rua Tipoki, 22 Johnny Leo'o.
CHIEFS: 15 Mils Muliaina, 14 Roy Kinikinilau, 13 Dwayne Sweeney, 12 Tane Tu'ipulotu, 11 Sitiveni Sivivatu, 10 Stephen Donald, 9 Brendon Leonard; 8 Sione Lauaki, 7 Marty Holah, 6 Liam Messam, 5 Keith Robinson, 4 Jono Gibbes (c), 3 Nathan White, 2 Tom Willis, 1 Simms Davison. Reserves: 16 Aled de Malmanche 17 Ben Castle, 18 Kristian Ormsby, 19 Steven Bates, 20 Byron Kelleher, 21 Murray Williams, 22 Lelia Masaga.
Referee: Bryce Lawrence (NZ).

How we see it: Irresistible force meets immovable object. The on-fire Chiefs have the momentum, but, gee, the Crusaders haven't lost at home since 2004, they need a win to clinch home playoffs advantage and every sensible part of you says they'll find a way to win this. Even without Dan Carter. Don't discount a Chiefs upset if they play the game they're capable of, but if you're a betting man you take a home win, by unders. Crusaders by 12 or less.

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