The Runner Sports

2017 Super Rugby Semifinal Preview

Last week’s matches were the ideal way to open up the 2017 Super Rugby playoffs. The Crusaders showed clear domination throughout their match.  The Hurricanes and Lions were lacking early, but ended up finding ways to win. The Chiefs were able to hold off a desperate Stormers team to make the Super Rugby semifinals. There were no real surprises in the quarterfinals, and the stage has been set for a great semifinal. The Kiwi sides dominate the bracket holding three of the four spots. The only non-New Zealand side to progress is the ever familiar Lions.

Crusaders V Chiefs

In this all Kiwi semifinal, the regular season juggernauts, the Crusaders, will be looking to compete for their first Super Rugby Championship in nine years.

The Crusaders’ forward pack will continue their dominance

The Crusaders’ front eight are arguably the best in the world. Led by the other Barrett brother, Scott Barrett, the Crusaders’ scrum has been phenomenal, dominating even the British and Irish Lions. Last week against the Highlanders, the Crusaders were perfect in the scrum, and missed only one lineout. Their defensive method seems at odds with the current trend. The Crusaders maintained the lion’s share of territory and possession (68% and 61% respectively). With that performance, they forced the Highlanders to wear themselves out tackling and leaving little in the tank for attacking ball. Their performance at the ruck was clinical, winning 117/119 rucks keeping the possession high.

Expect more of the same this week against the Chiefs. The Crusaders are the most physical team in Super Rugby this season and will do a lot of damage to the Chiefs side.

Damian McKenzie looks to earn an All Blacks jersey with a title

Damian McKenzie seems to have difficult luck with the All Blacks. Following Israel Dagg’s move to the wing position, it was expected that the starting 15 shirt would go to McKenzie. It did not, however, with Jordie Barrett leap frogging him into the starting full back role at the end of the Lions series. With the snub at this point, rumors have started to abound that McKenzie would make the move next season to the English Premiership. The team of interest for his skills are the Leicester Tigers. This move would make sense as the Tigers need a reliable kicker and McKenzie would more than fill the role of.

Through all this talk, Damien McKenzie is fully focused on the Crusaders and The Rugby Championship. Ben Smith will be taking a sabbatical through the Championship next month, and this will slot McKenzie in the number two slot for the 15 jersey. He is still likely to play backup to Jordie Barrett, but could work his way into earning a starting role.

McKenzie’s skills will be absolutely necessary if the Chiefs are to stand up to the dominant Crusaders. The Crusaders do not usually make mistakes, so his boot must be true when they do. The Crusaders are not a high scoring team and do not play through their backline, so a strong performance in penalty kicks should be enough to keep the Chiefs within striking distance.

Lions V Hurricanes

A rematch of last year’s final has a different setting, but the stakes this time are just as high.

Elton Jantjies must prove he has the mettle to excel in knock-out rugby

The Lions’ match against the Sharks was very disappointing for the team from Johannesburg. The Lions trailed the Sharks through the entire first half. If not for Ruan Combrinck’s amazing kick with only two minutes remaining, it is likely the Sharks would be in this position instead of the Lions. In the days after the quarterfinal match, much was made of Elton Jantjies’ kicking.

Jantjies only completed two of his six kicks in the match. Many take that performance to believe that he does not have the stomach for high-level rugby. They treat him as if he has never been in the playoffs before. Last year, Jantjies led the Lions to the finals against the Hurricanes in Wellington where he had a 79% kick success rate. He was very reliable with the kick, and did not seem to suffer any nerves throughout. During the 2017 campaign, his kicking was just as reliable with 81% success and his lowest being 50% against the Queensland Reds. This match was a rare occurrence for him playing from behind, but through the season Jantjies has had an astounding 87% completion rate when the Lions have trailed in the match. Is it possible that he simply had a bad match?

Hurricanes must shore up first half defense to top Lions

Last week saw the Hurricanes enter the second half down on the scoreboard. The Brumbies shockingly had a one-point lead at the break. A strong second half of kicking by Jordie Barrett, as well as a full -scale collapse by the Brumbies saved the day for the Hurricanes. This week, that will not be enough. The Lions are a much stronger team than the Brumbies were, and although they had an off week, do not expect a repeat performance by the Lions. The Lions spread the ball wide and look for gaps on the corners. The Hurricanes’ defense will have to be more stout than last week if they expect to stay competitive in this match.

For the second week in a row, the Hurricanes will be traveling for their playoff game. Although successful last week, this week’s match is significantly longer to travel. The wear and tear on the Hurricanes may begin to show this week. They have an unending list of all-star backs to choose from in this match, and they will need every one of them. This match will be the closer of the two semifinal matches, and both teams will fight tooth and nail for the win.

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David Bradham

Active duty Navy, have a true passion for Rugby.
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