Monday, December 26, 2011

2011 in review: Crusaders and Blues fall to Red menace

Source: All Blacks

In a World Cup year, the Investec Super Rugby season unfortunately has almost become a warm up to the main event, but with the New Zealand franchises there was always going to be intrigue considering the history over the seasons.

The 1999 and 2003 tournaments were not only won by New Zealand teams, but those seasons were dominated by the kiwi sides, with the Crusaders beating the Highlanders while the Blues won their third crown at the expense of their great rivals from the south in the respective World Cup years.

This domination did not translate itself to the global stage.

In 2007 there was the deliberate withdrawal of top All Blacks to embark on an intensive conditioning course for the first half of the competition, but while the Blues and Crusaders reached the semi-finals, that year for the first time in history Super Rugby form (with the final contested between the Bulls and Sharks) translated itself to a World Cup – with a battle hardened Springboks team winning while the All Blacks crashed out to France.

With the Melbourne Rebels admitted to the competition as the fifteenth team, the 2011 season looked intriguing considering the on paper strength of some outfits, with it fair to say that as the campaigns progressed the typical unique toughness of Super Rugby again reared its head.

The new conference format was also applied, but with New Zealand providing more winners, finalists, top four qualifiers while heading overall Super Rugby statistics – it was always going be something of a pool of death for the kiwi teams.

As the Highlanders began their resurgence, the New Zealand Conference emerged as the most competitive - buttressed by the fact that the Crusaders and Blues had shared ten titles, the Chiefs had contested the 2009 final, while the Hurricanes had on four occasions made the top four since 2005.

The first round was intriguing by itself.

The Blues won the opening week’s glamour clash by beating the Crusaders, the Highlanders would shock the Hurricanes in Wellington while the Chiefs would lose to the Brumbies.

Another notable result almost saw the Western Force’s ploy in playing four loose forwards against the Reds almost pay dividends in shutting down Queensland’s expansive game, with only two late tries and the second half debut of Beau Robinson turning the tide.

But we shall come back to that result later.

New Zealand was then turned upside down, as Canterbury suffered a 6.3 magnitude earthquake on February 22, almost six months after another major shake on September 4 in 2010 – and the local rugby community would not be the same again.

The Crusaders and Hurricanes round two clash was called off, and the disaster sparked an epic journey for the seven-time champions which would take them all around the world in a mammoth 100,000km journey that would culminate at Suncorp Stadium in the Super Rugby Final.

The Blues however set the early pace, losing just one match and drawing another in a compelling start to the competition over the first 12 rounds, which saw them lead the New Zealand conference as well as the overall table.

However the three-time champions, despite showing more balance and glimpses of a complete game, were unable to close the season out, losing their next four matches while the confusion over their first choice playmakers – alternating between Luke McAlister and Stephen Brett – never gave the Blues the necessary momentum.

The Highlanders completed a fairy tale beginning to the season, winning seven of their first eight matches including the prized scalps of the Bulls and Crusaders.

Lack of depth and injuries conspired to derail what could have been the Southerners first semi-final appearance since 2002, but they still achieved their best finish since 2005.

A low overall point’s scoring ledger, with their 296 scored only better than the Rebels, showed lack of a decisive blade, which hurt the Highlanders at times, but the arrival of All Blacks including Hosea Gear and Andrew Hore should see their offensive capabilities increased for the upcoming season.

The Hurricanes and Chiefs both had difficult years, finishing ninth and tenth overall, while bringing up the back of the New Zealand conference.

The Hurricanes played in arguably the match of the season when they defeated the Cheetahs 50-47, but the beauty of the New Zealander’s chaotic and wild attack throughout was tarnished with the same philosophies applied to their defence.

They did however defeat the Reds, 28-26, in Wellington, where desperation was too much for a Reds team that had begun to swagger their way towards the title.

The Chiefs season highlight would have been a 15-6 defeat of the Sharks, who had just come from Australia with a new South African record back-to-back success over the Force and Rebels, while setting an early pace unbeaten from four rounds.

Making a mockery of their ‘understrength’ forward pack, the Chiefs tore into the Durban based forwards that day back in March, while they stunned the Stormers 30-24 in round 13 – but despite wins over the front runners from the Republic – failure to gather impetus (with only two consecutive victories) derailed the Waikato based franchise.

The Crusaders however showed a level of character and class that has earned them a deserved nomination in the prestigious world recognised Laureus Awards ‘Comeback of the Year’ category, playing every single match away from home.

AMI Stadium was declared unplayable, and the Crusaders took their home games to Nelson, Timaru, Wellington, Napier and London – the latter of which was the first Super Rugby game to be taken to the Northern Hemisphere.

Despite this the Crusaders set the benchmark for attack, scoring more points (436), boasting the best point’s difference (+163), while finishing third overall, a position they also achieved with their defensive ledger.

Six straight wins after their tragic earthquake at home, including thumping triumphs over the Highlanders, Sharks, Bulls and Cheetahs saw the Crusaders clearly focus their emotional angst onto their opposition, but by the time an arduous campaign would come to its close in Brisbane, the New Zealanders were clearly fatigued when they met Queensland in the final.

The Reds may have had their own home issues with the Brisbane floods wreaking havoc on the state, but they turned their game around thanks to boisterous support at the colosseum that is Suncorp, while the canny coaching of Ewen McKenzie was obvious throughout.

A narrow win against the Force in round one showed that losing the battle of the ruck was critical to the Reds, while their following week loss against the Waratahs showed that if they didn’t match their opponents physically then they would come out second best.

A deliberate shift in tactics saw the likes of Robinson and co become heroes for the Reds, while captain James Horwill showed madman like ferocity in the loose to lead his forward pack to gain at least parity with the opposition – allowing the likes of Quade Cooper and Will Genia to play off the front foot.

This adaptability with their coaching and tactics would ultimately prove the difference, as the Reds in the final made a concerted effort to shut down the nearly all-powerful Crusaders scrum and limit the effect of the Sonny Bill Williams and Robbie Fruean midfield, that had tore apart most sides throughout the season.

The Reds would win 18-13 in the battle of the natural disaster victims, but home comforts and the lack of a long semi-final journey appeared to give the Australians an edge, as they claimed their first Super Rugby title after reaching the top four for the first time since 2001.

The Crusaders made their tenth final, while making at least the top four for the tenth straight year.

One shudders to think what they could have achieved had they enjoyed home comforts…


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