Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Five reasons the Crusaders will beat the Bulls

OPINION: If the Crusaders players can persuade their jumbled body clocks to forgive them the tortuous regime of the last few weeks, the New Zealanders have a famous victory within their grasp in Soweto this weekend.

It won't be easy. In fact it will be decidedly tricky. But if anybody can, the Crusaders can - as their stellar record at this stage of the season amply testifies.

The Bulls are a formidable side, not to mention a well rested one. Since these two teams last squared off on May 5 in Pretoria, the Crusaders will have travelled to and from New Zealand and got themselves up for an elimination final round-robin clash against the Brumbies in Christchurch last Friday night.
By contrast the frontline Bulls players were given the final round off, with a second-string side selected to head down the coast and complete what was, for them, a meaningless final fixture against the Stormers.
But was it? It just may be that the Bulls have made a tactical blunder ahead of this third semifinal meeting between these two sides over the last four years. Only time will tell, but despite the foreboding presence of the travel factor five key things tell me Todd Blackadder's Crusaders can cause an upset in the first of the semifinals at Orlando Stadium when they take on the top qualifiers and defending champions at 3am on Sunday, NZ time.

Here they are:

1. Momentum.
Believe it or not it's actually on the side of the Crusaders despite their patchy finish to the season. They were the best team on the paddock a fortnight ago when they wound down their unsuccessful tour with a 35-40 defeat notable as much for the outrageous refereeing performance of Marius Jonker as it was for anything spectacular the Bulls did.
The 'Saders took plenty out of that Loftus match where they played most of the rugby, established the tempo and very much dictated terms for a clash which swung on two or three contentious decisions by Jonker. Then they turned round, off the long trip home, and pretty clinically dealt to a Brumbies side that had the sniff of the semis in their nostrils.

There were signs at the weekend that the Crusaders game had finally gone to the level that Blackadder has been seeking for a while now. Their work, particularly off turnover, was as sharp as it's been all year and when New Zealand's best team has its link play and counter game going, they are always tough to beat.
On the other side of the coin the Bulls forsook momentum in favour of resting their top lineup ahead of the semifinals - a tactic fraught with danger. It hasn't worked in the past - particularly for the Waratahs in 2002 - and it will be interesting to see how the Bulls come out on the back of what was essentially a bye week for their leading players.

2. The Soweto factor.
The Bulls have an awesome record at Loftus Versfeld where they haven't been beaten in over two years and where they've never lost in the Super rugby post-season.
But unfortunately for them, this semi ain't at their Pretoria fortress, it's in a soccer stadium in Soweto, because of the looming Fifa World Cup. That changes the playing field significantly.
Any mental blocks the Crusaders may have had over playing at a stadium where they've twice been rolled by the Bulls at semifinal time now go out the window.
Instead it's been notable that the Crusaders team have been embracing the Soweto factor ahead of the match, expressing their excitement at the chance to play in the famous Johannesburg township at a quality venue just a stone's throw from the brand new Soccer City stadium that will host the World Cup final in a few short weeks.
Loftus may not have held any fears for the 'Saders, but it certainly presented some bad memories. There will still be a full house of Bulls fans at Orlando Stadium, but that won't worry the Kiwis a bit as they look to make the most of their scheduling break.

3. They're due. Simple as that.
The Crusaders have a superb post-season record with this their ninth straight semifinal appearance and their 12th in 13 seasons. Until 2007 they'd never lost a semi, and they responded to that departure (at the hands of the Bulls) by bouncing back to claim title No 7 the following year.
What do you know they lost at the semifinal stage to the Bulls again last year, so if the cycle holds true they should go all the way again in 2010.
But more than just sequencing suggests this could be the Crusaders year. They're an outfit that have played more playoffs football than anybody in the competition, and they know what's required at this stage. Plus they tend to learn their lessons. Those two semifinal defeats by the Bulls will be painful reminders of just what it takes to win against this tough side. A fortnight ago showed they've got a plan that works. Now they just need to execute it a smidgeon better and get a fairer deal from the man with the whistle.

4. They've got a better backline.
Sure, everyone knows rugby wins are forged up front, but both these packs are full of quality individuals and really should cancel each other out. Lineout edge to Bulls, scrum one to Crusaders, the breakdown and loose forward battle should be a beaut.
But the Crusaders' attack game has found its feet in the nick of time, with Zac Guildford, Sean Maitland, Colin Slade, Dan Carter and, to a lesser degree, Robbie Fruean running into some serious form. The decision to go with Dan Bowden as a second five-eighth also seems to have worked, especially in terms of the distribution and kicking game.
The Bulls, on the other hand, are without their best finisher (van den Heever) to suspension and, let's face it, have never been renowned for their willingness to shift it through the hands. If the Crusaders can again make this a free-flowing encounter, they will hold the trump cards.

5. Dan Carter.
He's spent all year making uncharacteristic mistakes and struggling to find his A game. But the last two weeks there have been signs that the world's best No 10 is coming back to the form that we've come to expect from him.
The battle between two fabulous pivots could well decide this clash. Morne Steyn has punished the Crusaders heavily in their recent meetings and Blackadder will stress the need to minimise the chances for this great points-taker to have either shots or pots at goal.
But Steyn does not have the decision-making prowess, nor the running game, of Carter at his best. All season the All Black great has played a strangely off-key tune, but wouldn't it be typical - and timely - for him to take command now when the stakes are highest.
Steyn is a fine player. But he's not Carter. Big advantage to the Crusaders.
So there you have it. Five reasons why the Crusaders could win what should be a gripping semifinal. Of course they have to make them count against a side that has fashioned a formidable record of its own of late.
It should be one heck of a semi.

Crusaders head to South Africa :

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