Derbies set to delight

2012-07-26 12:00
Sport24 columnist Alan Solomons (File)
There is undoubtedly massive pressure on the teams ahead of the semi-finals, but in fairness to the coaches and players alike, they all need to take credit for having made the final four.

Reaching the semi-finals is no easy feat in such a strenuous competition, so the top four sides should take a bow.

Turning to what is likely to be a thrilling coastal derby; the Stormers host the Sharks at Newlands. The Sharks’ win over the Reds has set up a mouth-watering showdown.

The Sharks really played well against the Reds and came out of the blocks firing. John Plumtree got his selections spot-on - playing Willem Alberts at lock was a good call.

However, there is no doubt the Stormers are in an advantageous position. Playing in front of their passionate home crowd coupled with a good week’s break, should hand them a slight edge. By having a bye you do loss a little rhythm, but I believe the break will do them more good than harm.

While I don’t feel travelling to Cape Town a day early will make much difference for the Sharks, they are on a high and have momentum despite having travelled all the way back from Brisbane. They are a side with an ability to overcome challenges, but the draw certainly favours the Stormers.

If I go back to when I was coaching the Stormers in 1999, the Highlanders deservedly beat us in the semis, but then had to travel back to face the Crusaders in the final, which took its toll.

The Stormers may well be suited to playoff style rugby, but the Sharks will offer something similar after their commanding performance against the Reds. That game proved they are also a top-notch defensive unit and that they have the right mentality to handle the big games.

I think the Stormers edge it in the backs. While Freddie Michalak is a class player, he does not possess Peter Grant’s kicking consistency or physical presence. The Grant-Duvenage halfback pairing is a great combination. Duvenage is very much like a French scrumhalf in that he can control the game.

The Sharks will miss both Pat Lambie and Frans Steyn. Lambie is a mercurial attacker who offers an attacking edge, while Steyn is immensely physical with a big boot.

However, the Stormers are without Duane Vermuelen and Schalk Burger, which levels the playing field. While No 8 is not Deon Fourie’s ideal position, he is a good footballer and has proved well capable of doing the job.

The key factor, however, is how the Stormers handle the Sharks’ physical onslaught. While the Stormers have a competent pack, the Sharks’ forwards are imposing. The game is going to hinge on who wins the collisions.

Despite facing an all-Springbok front row, the Stormers front row has always been combative and they have a good pack and a nicely balanced side. They are quite similar to the side of 1999 in that they have good balance and strike power in the backs.

The Sharks will aim to seize the initiative upfront through the collision points. If you go back to when the Sharks won the Currie Cup final a couple of years ago, they employed those tactics. I see them adopting a similar strategy in this match.

The Sharks fundamentally play momentum-based rugby, whereas the Stormers suffocate sides and use their kicking game to great effect. I think gaining territorial ascendancy will be a key factor in both semi-finals.

I expect a tight affair with both sides playing low-risk rugby. The Stormers certainly don’t take many risks, highlighted by their failure to score a four-try bonus point so far this season. Weighing everything up, I’m predicting the Stormers to win by no more than five points.

Turning to the all-New Zealand semi-final, I expect the game to be just as close.

Although the Crusaders are playing away from home, they have more experience of playing in knockout situations than the Chiefs. They also have a slight edge upfront and I think having Dan Carter at flyhalf will swing it in their favour by no more than five points.

While both semi-finals will be great games, the South African derby will be exceptional.

Alan Solomons was assistant coach to Nick Mallett when the Springboks went 17 Tests unbeaten. He is currently EP Kings’ Director of Rugby and is a consultant to the IRB.

Read more on:    super 15  |  rugby

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