AUCKLAND, NZ – Well, after 19 long rounds and a wee bit of a break for the international season, we’re finally here. It’s playoff time in Super Rugby, with the top two sides (Waratahs and Crusaders) getting the bye while the other four (Sharks, Brumbies, Chiefs and Highlanders) get to battle it out to see who’ll face them next weekend in the major semi finals. But before we get into the previews of this weekend’s two preliminary playoffs, just a note on what’s been happening in this part of the world lately.
Chiefs utility back Gareth Anscombe has decided he’s Welsh now and has signed with the Cardiff Blues. Rumours are he’ll be fast tracked into the Welsh test side for the end-of-year tours so he may end up facing the team he couldn’t get into, the All Blacks. Much like the Bundee Aki moving to Ireland situation, this says far more about Welsh rugby than it does about NZ. How Warren Gatland couldn’t make James Hook, Rhys Priestland or anyone else into a decent first five is pretty poor, especially considering the regard he’s supposedly held in. Still, it’s a good move getting the steady Anscombe, hopefully he’ll make up for when Wales thought they could win the World Cup without a goal kicker. Anscome apparently qualifies for Wales through his mother’s side, however, resorting to grabbing guys with tenuous heritage is nothing new for that part of the world.
As predicted, Sonny Bill Williams will be back in NZ rugby next year with the Chiefs. He might even be back sooner with All Black coach Steve Hansen saying he’d be open to taking him on the end-of-year tour. SBW would have to have a run with his new provincial side, Counties-Manukau, before he qualifies to make the All Blacks, but that only needs to be a token appearance off the bench. Speaking of Counties, rumours are rife their coach Tana Umaga will become the coach of the new expansion Super Rugby team based in either Singapore or Japan. So the chances of taking SBW with him are pretty reasonable, given that new franchise will need a big signing.
The problem child of Super Rugby Ma’a Nonu (note I said Super Rugby, not All Black rugby), is going home to the Hurricanes after a four season exile due to a serious personality clash with departing coach Mark Hammett. His addition to the Canes means they will field the comp’s most lethal back line, with All Blacks TJ Perenara, Beauden Barrett, Conrad Smith, Cory Jane and Julian Savea all returning in 2015.
Enough about the future, let’s talk about right now. The first preliminary playoff is over in Canberra on Saturday night, where the Brumbies welcome the Chiefs. #BRUvCHI
A rematch of last year’s final sees the Chiefs coming in as underdogs on the Brumbies home patch. The visitors are coming off a tough win in atrocious conditions last week against the Blues that sealed their spot in the post season. They have had a season of serious setbacks with key injuries meaning at one stage they almost asked their bus driver to pull on his boots, however they’ve managed to get here on the back of a massive season from lock Brodie Retallick. He’s been backed up by Liam Messam and, at times, Aaron Cruden. Cruden’s form on Saturday night is crucial to the Chiefs chances, when he has a bad game they have no chance. Meanwhile the Brumbies have bounced back from a hiding from the Waratahs two weeks ago to thrash the Force, giving them an ominous dose of confidence for this game. They’ve looked particularly impressive when playing in Canberra and have gotten great performances this season from first five Matt Toomua, second five Christian Lealiifano and halfback Nic White who have operated behind a consistent forward pack. Don’t expect too many shots at goal to be missed, the Brumbies have four guys who could be described as world class, while Cruden is the incumbent All Black kicker for a good reason. The weather in Australia’s capital is pretty cold at this time of year, but that’s no different to what the Chiefs have had to put up with this season.
Prediction: Very, very close to call. If the Chiefs get a sniff they will battle all the way to the finish as they have that ‘team of destiny’ thing going on. However, I think home field advantage will give the Brumbies the revenge they’ve been after since last year’s final. Brumbies by 5.
Man to watch: Brumbies winger Henry Speight has overcome a broken jaw to return not just to the starting lineup, but a rich vein of form too. Chiefs rookie James Lowe will have his hands full marking him.
The next playoff match takes place in Durban, where the Sharks host the Highlanders. #SHAvHIG
On paper, this one is a no-brainer. But, as they say, rugby is not played on paper (have I used that one before this season? I think I might have). The Sharks crushed all opposition for the most of the season, embarking on a highly successful tour of Australasia including a heroic 14-man win over the Crusaders in Christchurch. Everyone was crowning them as champs in waiting, but then the international break happened and it seemed all their momentum went missing. Maybe they were all off chasing the cheerleaders, who knows? Coach Jake White better make sure the Sharks have their heads screwed on for this one, because the Highlanders are one of the few teams to beat them this year, in Durban no less. The Sharks key players this season have been Frans Steyn, whose boot has won them more than a few games, while in the pack the du Plessis brothers Bismarck and Jannie have led from the front. The Highlanders season has been framed by the rise to prominence of centre Malakai Fekitoa and the brilliantly consistent form of fullback Ben Smith. They’ve got to the finals playing attractive rugby with a squad of lesser names, so they have absolutely nothing to lose in this game, given they’ve already exceeded the predictions of their season even their most loyal fans could have hoped for. Hopefully they throw the ball around, as that’s when they’ve had the most success.
Prediction: Two contrasting styles, so whoever can get the upper hand in set piece should be able to work their way into getting crucial shots at goal. I’d like to see an open game, but I think the Sharks will grind this out to set up a rematch with the Crusaders next weekend. Sharks by 10.
So there we go, a little less work for me this week with only two games. What do you think will happen?
That’s it for now. Feel free to comment below, please look for and “Like” our Facebook Rugby Wrap Up Page and follow us on Twitter@:RugbyWrapUp, Junoir Blaber, Nick Hall, James Harrington, Jamie Wall, Jaime Loyd, DJ Eberle, Cody Kuxmann, Karen Ritter, Jake Frechette and Declan Yeats, respectively.