SEMI FINAL 1: Chiefs vs Hurricanes, Hamilton, Friday 7.30pm NZT
These two sides met a mere two weeks ago at the exact same venue, with the Chiefs coming out victors 16-8 , a win all the more impressive given the Chiefs had just returned from three weeks in South Africa. Many had expected the Hurricanes to win that match, but it was the Chiefs who turned the heat on at the start of the second half and blew the Hurricanes off the park. They also had the better of set pieces on the night, and won the battle of the loosies.
Poor discipline, so long a curse of Wellington sides, also contributed to their downfall with Stephen Donald’s goal kicking taking the game out of the Hurricanes’ reach. It didn’t help that Wilie Ripia had a poor night with the boot either, missing most of his kicks at goal kicks that could have kept the Canes in touch. The Hurricanes will be starting an unchanged side from the one that beat the Reds 37-28 last weekend, but the Chiefs have lost halfback Brendon Leonard and prop Ben May, and are still without All Black centre Richard Kahui.
Injury to reserve halfback David Bason has added further problems, with Taranaki’s Brett Goodin coming onto the bench. If the Hurricanes are to win this game they will need to get behind the Chiefs’ rush defensive line, and it will likely be the midfield that the All Black pairing of Ma’a Nonu and Conrad Smith will target with the absence of Kahui. Piri Weepu will no doubt make a nuisance of himself around the fringes of the scrum where the relatively inexperienced Toby Morland was found wanting at times a fortnight ago. But the Hurricanes will have to rely on more than just their usual free-flowing rugby to beat the Chiefs in Hamilton can they play finals rugby?
The Chiefs will be looking to keep the Hurricanes trapped in their own territory, but also have a formidable back three in Masaga, Sivivatu and Muliaina the latter being in as fine a form as we’ve seen in recent years. Their loose forward trio has also been firing this season, and they will be looking to once again put the heat on at the breakdown. Stephen Donald, who has scored all the Chiefs’ points in the last two games, will again be key and fans will be hoping his kicking radar is on-song. The Chiefs have shown they can play it tight and look for territory when required, but also have some brilliant attacking flair of their own. They will need both to beat a confident Hurricanes side.
The Hurricanes have made the semi-finals 6 times, but have only ever won through to the final once (2006, where they lost to the Crusaders in Christchurch). They have never won a semi-final away from home.
This is only the second time the Chiefs have made the semi-finals, the last time being in 2004. They have never won a semi-final.
Hurricanes: Cory Jane, Tamati Ellison, Conrad Smith, Ma’a Nonu, David Smith, Willie Ripia, Piri Weepu, Rodney So’oialo (captain), Scott Waldrom, Victor Vito, Jason Eaton, Jeremy Thrush, Neemia Tialata, Andrew Hore, John Schwalger. Reserves: Ged Robinson, Jacob Ellison, Bryn Evans, Karl Lowe, Alby Mathewson, Jason Kawau, Zac Guildford.
Chiefs: Mils Muliaina(c), Lelia Masaga, Dwayne Sweeney, Callum Bruce, Sitivini Sivivatu, Stephen Donald, Toby Morland, Sione Lauaki, Tanerau Latimer, Liam Messam, Kevin O’Neill, Craig Clarke, James McGougan, Aled de Malmanche, Sona Taumalolo. Reserves: Hika Elliot, Joe Savage, Toby Lynn, Serge Lilo, Brett Goodin, Mike Delany, Sosene Anesi.
SEMI-FINAL 2: Bulls v Crusaders, Pretoria, Sunday 1am NZT
The Crusaders prevailed 15-13 when these two sides met in Christchurch back in week 8 of the competition, but it will be a different kettle of fish in Pretoria as everyone knows the Bulls at home are a sterner test than the Bulls on the road. The Bulls have been bolstered with the naming of Springbok midfielder Wynand Olivier who left the field in the game against the Sharks last weekend with what looked to be a serious hip injury, and will also have their Springbok locking pairing of captain Victor Matfield and Bakkes Botha after Botha was cleared following a citation for hitting Sharks’ No 8 Ryan Kankowski.
Add to that the world’s best halfback Fourie du Preez, drop goal ace Morne Steyn, flying wingers Bryan Habana and Akona Ndungane, big running No 8 Pierre Spies and the hard running hooker Derick Kuun and this is looking like mission impossible for the very young Crusaders side. And that’s without looking at the Bulls’ reserve lineup! The Bulls have won their last 9 games at home, so it will take something special to break that run.
The Crusaders have made it through to the playoffs this year mainly thanks to the reliable Leon MacDonald who took over goal kicking duties in round 12, and landed the all-important drop goal to give the Crusaders the win over the Blues in the final round for the win that ultimately saw them make fourth place. Captain Richie McCaw will also be a key player, having missed the round robin game against the Bulls.
But outside of MacDonald, McCaw, and All Blacks Kieran Read, Brad Thorn and Andy Ellis, it is a very young and inexperienced side that will take on the Bulls this weekend. To have made it through to the playoffs is an achievement in itself. Still, if there was ever a team that knows how to win sudden-death matches, it’s the Crusaders.
The Bulls have made the semi-finals three times, losing two away semis and winning one at home when they made it through to the final in 2007. That year they went on to win the title against the Sharks in Durban.
The Crusaders have made the semi-finals 11 times, and 2009 is their 8th consecutive semi-final appearance. They have only failed to make the final from one of those semi-finals, and that solitary loss was against the Bulls in Pretoria in 2007. The Crusaders are also the only Super team to have won the title from the position of fourth qualifier, when they beat the Reds in Brisbane in the semi-final and then went on to win the final against the Highlanders in Dunedin in 1999. They have won 7 of the 8 finals they have appeared in.
Bulls: Zane Kirchner, Akona Ndungane, Jaco Pretorius, Wynand Olivier, Bryan Habana; Morne Steyn, Fourie du Preez; Pierre Spies, Dewald Potgieter, Deon Stegmann, Victor Matfield (c), Bakkies Botha, Werner Kruger, Derick Kuun, Gurthro Steenkamp. Reserves: Chiliboy Ralepelle, Rayno Gerber, Danie Rossouw, Pedrie Wannenburg, Heini Adams, Burton Francis, Gerhard van den Heever.
Crusaders: Leon MacDonald, Jared Payne, Tim Bateman, Ryan Crotty, Adam Whitelock, Stephen Brett, Andy Ellis/Kahn Fotuali’i, Thomas Waldrom , Richie McCaw(c), Kieran Read, Isaac Ross, Brad Thorn/Michael Paterson, Owen Franks,, Jason MacDonald, Wyatt Crockett. Reserves: Dan Perrin, Ben Franks, Michael Paterson/Ross Filipo, George Whitelock, Khan Fotuali’i/Tyson Keats, Colin Slade, Hamish Gard.