SA duo must target Crusaders
Comment: Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town – Easier said than done, of course, but if both the Stormers and Bulls can dispose of the Crusaders over the next fortnight, Vodacom Super 14 semi-finals featuring two South African and two Australian sides are highly likely.
I suggested in a radio chat early on Monday that the Crusaders, traditionally the pick of the Kiwi crop and also most iconic team in the tournament’s history, are arguably the side most at risk among the top five on the table.
While it remains a tad too early to say this definitively, it is looking increasingly likely that four of the current leading five - Bulls, Stormers, Crusaders, Reds and Waratahs in that order - will advance to the knockout phase.
And a glance at the remaining fixtures suggests that of this group, it is the Canterbury outfit who face the toughest run-in.
They have successive matches on our soil against the Stormers (this Friday night) and Bulls, followed by one last home hurrah against a Brumbies side probably out of contention by then, but far from rollovers on any occasion.
My sentiment is fearfully shared in New Zealand itself: seasoned critic Wynne Gray of the New Zealand Herald admitted “there must be doubt” the Crusaders will make the cut after the shock loss to the Force in Perth, en route to South Africa.
“If the seven-time champions play as moderately (against the Stormers and Bulls) as they did in their 24-16 loss to the Force, every New Zealand side could miss the playoffs as they have just once before in 2001.”
On that occasion, the semi-finalists were the Brumbies, Sharks, Cats and Reds and the Brumbies went on to win the final at a canter in Canberra against the KwaZulu-Natalians.
It is hard to escape a suspicion that, despite the surprising levels of grief Aussie teams have given South Africa’s contenders this year – and the Stormers in particular – both leading SA franchises would secretly like to see the street-smart Crusaders eliminated from the chase.
After all, they boast many gnarly players who have emphatically “been there and done that” at the business end of the Super 14.
The intriguing thing about their respective outings at Newlands and Loftus, however, is that Richie McCaw and company need hold no special fear of either occasion if their recent history in this country is employed as a yardstick.
In 2008 they smashed the Bulls by an unlikely 54-19 in Pretoria, and promptly handed out a not dissimilar dose of heartbreak in Cape Town, downing the Stormers 22-0.
Two years earlier they also stormed Fortress Loftus, winning 35-17, although the Stormers did soundly beat them 28-17 at Newlands.
There is also a semi-final encounter to consider in 2007, when the Bulls trampled the Crusaders 27-12 on the Highveld, en route to grabbing the trophy for the first time in Durban, courtesy of Bryan Habana’s late, late show.
Curiously, then, the Crusaders’ modern-era matches against the Bulls and Stormers in South Africa are seldom close … they either smash these opponents or get smashed themselves!
It all adds up to a very healthy air of suspense over the two looming, red-letter matches.
Lose both and the Crusaders are almost certainly in big, big trouble … and then the perfect scenario from a South African perspective becomes ever more likely: home semis for each of the Bulls and Stormers against either of the Reds and Waratahs respectively.
But now just imagine if the Crusaders - hardly lacking in “BMT” and sure to be smarting after their hiccup in Western Australia - triumph on both occasions.
That sets the cat among the pigeons and the twin South African challenge is badly knocked back anew.
Strap in for the thrill-ride …