'Tahs' title tilt under threat
Wellington - The seven-time champion Crusaders head into the Super Rugby playoffs more confident than they have been in years after booking a home semi-final in style over the weekend.
Todd Blackadder's side finished second on 51 points behind the Waratahs (58), closing out the regular season with an emphatic 34-8 win over the Highlanders.
Along with the impressive Waratahs, the Crusaders earn a week off to prepare for their eventual semi-final opponents and have found form at the right time.
"I think we have a little bit of momentum," Crusaders captain Kieran Read said.
"Our performances at this time are a lot better than we were last year when we were limping into the semis.
"Now we're in a position where we'll have a home game where we can really go at it."
Like the Waratahs, who secured top spot in the competition a week ago, the Crusaders will watch the first week of the playoffs with interest to know their next opponents.
The only South African side to make the postseason as conference champions, the Sharks will host the Highlanders next Saturday in Durban, while the fourth-placed Brumbies take on double-defending champions Chiefs in a repeat of last year's final.
The Crusaders may be buoyed by the return of injured All Blacks skipper Richie McCaw while Dan Carter's continued reintegration after a six-month sabbatical should also galvanise a side that has been itching to add to their seven titles.
"You need confidence in finals footy and in the past we have just scraped in," Blackadder told reporters.
"We've got a fit squad who are pretty determined to do something this year. We're ready to go and we can be better."
The Michael Cheika-coached Waratahs have been front-runners for much of the season with a massive pack punching holes in opposition defences and unleashing a backline boasting the mercurial talents of Wallabies' Kurtley Beale and top try-scorer Israel Folau.
Though Folau sat out the final round with a corked thigh, the Waratahs crushed the ailing Queensland Reds 34-3 away at Lang Park to finish the regular season on a seven-game winning streak.
The Sharks sealed the South African conference virtually before the competition halted for the June international window but have staggered into the postseason with losses to the lowly Stormers and Cheetahs in their final three games.
They were also hammered 34-18 by the Highlanders in Durban in April, but the wheels appear to have fallen off the Dunedin-based side after big losses to the Waratahs and Crusaders in their final two games.
Of the four sides contesting the first week of the playoffs, the Brumbies might fancy themselves the most after demolishing Western Force 47-25 to earn the right to return to Canberra Stadium to play the Chiefs.
The Chiefs head into the match on the back of narrow victories over the Auckland Blues and Wellington Hurricanes and were thrashed 41-23 away by the Brumbies in April.
The Brumbies were heartbroken after a gallant 27-22 loss against the Chiefs in last year's title decider in Hamilton and skipper Ben Mowen said the team had a score to settle.
"Massively," he told Australian Associated Press.
"There's a great rivalry between the two sides and us having lost the final to them last season - we want to make sure we're there at the end and we want to put one over them on the way through.
"The great thing about knockout footy is who's going to be `on' on the day and to come up against a side like that, I'm sure will bring out the best in the boys."