White looms large over semis
Sydney - Master schemer Jake White's influence will be writ large on the Super Rugby semi-finals this weekend when his Sharks take on the Crusaders and the Brumbies meet the Waratahs.
The Rugby World Cup-winning former Springboks coach took the Brumbies to the final last season and on Saturday he will be looking to repeat the feat with the Durban-based Sharks with a second win over the Crusaders in Christchurch this year.
The Sharks grabbed one of the more remarkable victories in Super Rugby history in May when, playing with 14 men for most of the match and 13 for 10 minutes, they ran out 30-25 winners over the seven-times champions.
It was a trademark performance from a White-coached team, surrendering the large part of possession with tactical kicking, suffocating the opposition with well-drilled defence and ruthlessly exploiting their scoring opportunities.
It would be even more remarkable achievement to do it twice in one year, though, and the Crusaders will be confident they will be an altogether different proposition with skipper Kieran Read and the totemic Dan Carter, both missing in May, back on board.
A third former World Player of the Year, Richie McCaw, will also be back in the Crusaders colours, having recovered from the broken rib he suffered playing for the All Blacks against England in June.
While the May victory offers the South Africans hope, the Crusaders will be coming off a rest week and the Sharks know only too well the impact of a long journey having run out of gas in the 2012 final after three trips across the Indian Ocean.
A few weeks ago, it would have been fair to say that White's influence would have been equally obvious on the Brumbies side who will travel up the Hume Highway from Canberra to Sydney for Saturday's all-Australian clash.
As Waratahs coach Michael Cheika pointed out this week, though, the twice champion Brumbies have shown more of the influence of White's replacement in their wins over the Western Force and Waikato Chiefs in their last two games.
Former Wallabies flyhalf Steve Larkham unleashed his potent offensive weapons to hammer the Force and make a spectacular start against the Chiefs, which enabled them to hold on when the defending champions fought back in the second half.
With the Waratahs' line-out malfunctioning spectacularly against Queensland two weeks ago, though, and the prodigious kicking skills of Jesse Mogg, Christian Lealiifano and Matt Toomua on hand, the temptation to revert to the White method will be high.
The few neutrals among the 40 000 crowd expected at the Sydney Football Stadium will be hoping that bullocking winger Henry Speight will be given free rein, however, and everybody knows what they are going to get from the Waratahs.
Cheika's side have topped the competition for carries, metres, offloads, passes and clean breaks this season and in fullback Israel Folau, who has scored 12 tries in 12 games, they have the most potent strike weapon.
There will be an explosive battle at the breakdown between two teams with little love for each other and it may need the imposing strength of the Waratahs bench to separate the sides in the last 20 minutes.