May 21, 2010
Aside from the hardy annuals, the Crusaders, who had to gatecrash the semifinals after a near-terminal, three-game slump through weeks 11 to 13, the locals have ranged between underachieving (Blues and Hurricanes) to ignominious and embarrassing (Chiefs and Highlanders).
Instead, the South African and Australian sides impressed most. The Waratahs quietly compiled an excellent season, while the Brumbies were in with a chance on the final weekend of round robin. The Reds, though fading late, were the biggest improvers and look to have the basis of a side that will challenge for the foreseeable future.
South Africa's talent is stacked in three sides - the Bulls, the Stormers and the Sharks. Two of those teams feature this weekend while the Sharks came home with a rails run, but their horror start left them too much to do.
You could look at the playoffs, note that New Zealand has as much representation as Australia and argue there is nothing to panic about, but look behind that facade and you will find that teams from these shores were the worst offenders in any number of fundamental areas - penalty concession, lost lineout ball and, crucially, goalkicking.
Rugby analyst Peter Thorburn believes the goalkicking woes can be put down in part to skills coach Mick Byrne no longer being a full-time New Zealand Rugby Union employee.
"He would go around the franchises and the provinces keeping an eye on things, but no longer does that," Thorburn said. "Some of it gets sent to him on video, but it's not the same as he being by the kicker's side, working through his mechanics."
As for the penalties, Thorburn said New Zealand sides had adapted slowest to the changing laws and interpretations in recent seasons.
"It's not that New Zealand teams aren't smart, but we haven't been as innovative as the other teams."
It has added up to a scenario where, for just the third time in Super rugby history (2001 and 2007 also), no semifinal or final will be on New Zealand soil.
But there's still the Crusaders ... as there ever was.
Semifinal 1 - Bulls v Crusaders:
15 Zane Kirchner14 Jaco van der Westhuyzen13 Jaco Pretorius12 Wynand Olivier11 Francois Hougaard
10 Morné Steyn9 Fourie du Preez
8 Pierre Spies7 Dewald Potgieter6 Deon Stegmann5 Victor Matfield (c)4 Danie Rossouw3 Werner Kruger2 Gary Botha1 Gurthro Steenkamp
Reserves: Bandise Maku, Bees Roux, Flip van der Merwe, Derick Kuun, Jacques-Louis Potgieter, Stephan Dippenaar, Pedrie Wannenburg.
KEY MAN: First five-eighth Morne Steyn. He is two points shy of Dan Carter's Super rugby points-scoring record (221) and not even the wildest Crusader optimist believes that mark will remain.
He might not be the flashiest player, but the Bulls rarely get the credit they deserve for their try-scoring exploits. If the Bulls are two points down late in the game, you don't want them with the ball in your half. Whether it be off the kicking tee or out of hand, Steyn is lethal.
WHAT SPINS THEIR WHEELS: Steyn, by virtue of wearing the kicking boots, might be the key man, but it is the brilliant Fourie du Preez that drives the engine.
"He is a super player," Peter Thorburn said. "He's combative, kicks brilliantly and takes the right options time after time."
Justin Collins believes they are not far from the complete article.
"I played them in Pretoria with the Blues last year and we just couldn't dent them." They lost 26-59. "They were so solid across the board."
HOW THE WHEELS COME OFF: They have lost Gerhard van den Heever and Bakkies Botha to suspension, but they have the depth to compensate. A more tangible weakness might be the defensive frailties of "some of their highly touted players", according to Thorburn.
"'Pierre Spies is big but he misses tackles, so does Morne Steyn. They have a physical midfield [Wynand Olivier and Jaco Pretorius] but their defensive configuration is not always good."
VERDICT: "I didn't like them resting all their players for the match against the Stormers," Collins said. "It comes across as complacent and the last thing you want to show a side like the Crusaders is complacency."
15 Colin Slade14 Sean Maitland13 Robert Fruean12 Daniel Bowden11 Zac Guildford
10 Dan Carter9 Andy Ellis
8 Kieran Read 7 Richie McCaw (c)6 George Whitelock5 Sam Whitelock4 Brad Thorn3 Owen Franks2 Ti'i Paulo1 Ben Franks
Reserves: Daniel Perrin, Wyatt Crockett, Chris Jack, Thomas Waldrom, Kahn Fotuali'i, Tim Bateman, Jared Payne.
KEY MAN: Tighthead prop Owen Franks. "He's become a beast at scrum time," says Thorburn. "If you look at his back, it's like Carl Hayman's was." It helps that Franks has the rather large Brad Thorn behind him, but so long as the loosehead side of the scrum does not suffer under Stuart Dickinson's often-barmy interpretations, the Crusaders should have a great platform from which to work.
What spins their wheels: Playing in late May is what gets them excited. This is their 12th trip to the post-season, which is more than the other three semifinalists combined.
"They have great teamwork at this time of year," Thorburn says. "They defend well and demonstrate great physicality in their tackling."
Justin Collins, who played his final game of Super rugby last season, said the fact the Crusaders had to fight in the last week just to make the playoffs would hold them in good stead.
"They had to work bloody hard. They're fighters who won't lie down," he said.
HOW THE WHEELS COME OFF: "Their lineout is a bit erratic, there's no doubt about that," said Thorburn, aware they face one of the world's best lineouts.
Collins agrees: "It's probably not as solid as it could be, but then again I haven't seen too many New Zealand lineouts you could bet the house on. It's not a strength at the moment."
VERDICT: Collins believes that the Bulls' home advantage is still intact, even if the game has been shifted to Soweto, where support for the Crusaders is likely to be more pronounced. Nevertheless, he is picking a rare semifinal away win. "I think they'll beat them over there," declares Collins, the Super rugby centurion. "I can sense some complacency in the Bulls."