Cream always finds its way to the top
224 Have your say
Crusaders Sean Maitland makes a break against the Waratahs. AAP Image/Ross Setford
Ultimately, the best four teams in the competition have made it through to the Super Rugby Semi-Finals. This may or may not settle the on-again debate about the merits of the conference system and guaranteed home finals.
The Crusaders are thanking the Sharks like they’ve never thanked anyone before, for sparing them what would’ve been required to get them to Cape Town in a reasonable timeframe. Instead, they’ll now grin like schoolboys as they leisurely make their way up to Hamilton later in the week.
The Sharks’ magnificent win in Brisbane has set themselves up for a potentially horrific travel schedule, though. They were straight back to Durban on Sunday and will head to Cape Town this week. And should they win again, they’re straight back on a plane to New Zealand for the final.
A nice problem to have, should it eventuate.
In Christchurch on Saturday evening, things played out pretty well exactly as I expected. The Crusaders simply dominated the Bulls in just about every facet from the moment the match kicked off. 28-13 was absolutely a true reflection of the game.
The Crusaders’ scrum, which has had more than a few moments of worry of its own this season, was too strong and too good. Even the Bulls’ revered lineout was shown up when they could least afford it.
The Bulls’ discipline was ordinary, too. They conceeded 13 penalties while the Crusaders gave only seven back. Dan Carter duly obliged the Bulls’ generosity, kicking six penalty goals from eight attempts while Morne Steyn landed just the one three-pointer for the night.
This was a game where the stats really do tell the story, as if the score didn’t make it obvious enough.
The Crusaders claimed possession overall (including 70% in the first half), won the breakdown numbers, conceded less turnovers, missed less tackles, made more line breaks and offloads, and won more scrums and stole more lineout ball.
Though the Bulls had the territory advantage, and spent more time in the Crusaders’ 22, they just couldn’t convert that into points, and indeed showed little inclination to pressure the Crusaders defence. Carter’s kick-pass-run numbers (9-22-4) which dwarfed those of Steyn (8-9-2), confirm just how one-way the attack was.
The Bulls also showed a strange tendency to kick the ball straight back to the Crusaders when what they really needed to do was try and play some rugby. It was as if they were going to vehemently stick to their midfield bomb plan, or be damned. And it wasn’t just that they kicked everything, it was that they kicked aimlessly for most of the game.
And there could be no better example than with about ten minutes remaining, and still trailing 22-8, Steyn launched yet another midfield bomb from just outside his 22, which came down around halfway to no contest. From this, the Crusaders set off on yet another attacking snipe into Bulls territory.
He was hooked only a minute later.
I don’t know whether the Bulls had a stopover en route to Christchurch, but their poor showing from the boot was as if they’d borrowed some blue jerseys in Sydney.
Perhaps what was most disappointing was that it was the Bulls big names, like Steyn, and Pierre Spies that went missing. Whereas for the Crusaders it was the largely unheralded players like Wyatt Crockett and George Whitelock and Ryan Crotty who really stood up. Crotty, especially, was excellent in midfield and must just about be the most underrated inside centre in New Zealand.
It was similarly one-way traffic in Brisbane later that night, but just not the way Australian supporters wanted it to be. After miraculously jagging a home final, the Reds entered the game minus Quade Cooper, but with enough confidence gained from most of their wins in 2012 coming without the suspended flyhalf.
While I hate the word ‘ambush’ being used in sports reporting, it’s hard to imagine the Reds saw the first forty minutes of the game playing out like it did. With the first half of the match done, the Reds were down 20-10, and the Australian flyhalf curse had hit them for the fourth time this season. They were in a world of trouble.
The Sharks played this game, or at the very least the first half of this game, pretty much ideally. They didn’t commit big numbers to the breakdown, they made the most of their mobile pack to create the turnovers when presented, and as a team, their counter-attack and offload game was superb.
When you consider that both the Reds’ tries came at the end of each half, 30-17 completely flatters the home side, and says nothing for the domination of the Sharks.
But neither do the stats. In complete contrast to the Crusaders-Bulls numbers, Ruckin’ Good Stats show the Reds had 67% of overall possession (and 78% in the second half), and 73% of territory (83% after halftime). They went into three times as many rucks and spent more than four times as long in the Sharks 22 as the Sharks did in theirs.
On stats alone, it’s a struggle to see how the Reds lost the game.
And yes, it would be very easy to point the finger squarely at referee Jonathan Kaplan, but to do that would take away from the outstanding defensive effort from the Sharks.
There is still good reason to be confused about how Liam Gill’s try wasn’t awarded, don’t get me wrong, and yes, the Sharks probably should’ve lost a man to the sin bin before the 81st minute, considering they conceded at least half a dozen penalties in their own 22 in the second half. But still, the Reds could not break their line when it truly mattered.
The decision to move Will Genia to flyhalf, further compounded by the 5-2 bench split, were the fatal mistakes. I know Ewen McKenzie has rationalised it by suggesting the Reds had trained this way all year for such a scenario, but it reeked of weakening a strength to plug a hole. There was any number of combinations available to the Reds at that point, all of which would’ve left Genia at the base of the scrum where he belongs.
It’s all academic now, of course, as we move to the Semi-Final stage. While coming into the Qualifying Finals I felt there were two clear favourites, I don’t think that’s the case this coming weekend. We could just as likely get a Stormers-Chiefs Final in Cape Town on August 4 as we could wind up in Christchurch watching a Crusaders-Sharks decider.
Any of the four will be worthy finalists, and even better, any of them will be a worthy Champion.
Cream always finds its way to the top in the end.
All Qualifying Final stats courtesy of www.ruckingoodstats.com
Brett McKay is a former non-tackling scrumhalf and not-quite-1st Grade middle order stalwart. A rugby and cricket expert for The Roar since July 2009 (having joined in Sept 2008), Brett has written for Inside Rugby and Cricket Australia, and is also PLAY Canberra's rugby correspondent. He tweets from @BMcSport
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