Wellington semi shaping as the final
Gavin Rich - SuperSport.com
Cape Town - The Emirates Lions and Highlanders chances of winning Vodacom Super Rugby depend so heavily on the Chiefs knocking over the Hurricanes in Saturday’s semifinal that the Wellington match shapes up as a final.
The Lions were brilliant in doing what they should have been expected to by dispatching the Crusaders at Emirates Airlines Park, but the most impressive teams by some distance in the quarterfinal round were the Hurricanes and the Chiefs. For the latter, that was not least because they had to travel away for their massive win over the DHL Stormers.
In successive weeks the Hurricanes have run into superb form, with a big away win over the Crusaders being followed by a whitewash of the Cell C Sharks at home in the first play-off game. The Chiefs can beat them if they reproduce what they did at Newlands, but they have to travel across the time-zones in order to do so. That will take some doing, for travelling back to New Zealand, in other words away from time, is much tougher than flying in the other direction.
Of course these days social media gives everyone an opinion and you don’t have to have spent more than a minute of your life speaking to top coaches and players to have one, but Hurricanes coach Chris Boyd has spent years at the coal-face and he inadvertently put perspective on how much of a challenge it will be for a team that would have to go to Wellington for a final.
Boyd said he felt sympathy for the Sharks as they’d travelled across the time zones just a few days before the quarterfinal. Then added that you’d only now how tough that was if you’d done it. Which of course he has. While the coaches had to talk up their chances or else why travel to New Zealand at all, the Sharks in reality had very little chance – and it will be the same for the Lions if that is where they have to go to play a decider.
The Chiefs will be debilitated by the flight back so the Hurricanes will start as favourites, but Stormers coach Robbie Fleck said after the Newlands game that after the show put on by the Chiefs he saw the Wellington game as the final. It is hard to disagree.
The Hurricanes did lose a home final to the Highlanders last year, but if the Highlanders win in Johannesburg and have to go to Wellington for a repeat of the 2015 decider, they will have added many more flying miles to an already massive tally accumulated over the last four weeks.
Conversely, if the Chiefs did win, the competitiveness of the following week’s final will be determined by who they end up playing against. The Highlanders will in that case at least enjoy the leg up of playing at home, where they haven’t lost to the Chiefs in ages. But if the Chiefs have to fly back to South Africa again that would mean a flight too far and the Lions would be overwhelming favourites to repeat the win they scored over the 2012 and 2013 champs in Hamilton earlier this year.
Not without good reason do New Zealand teams boast a clean slate when it comes to play-off matches against South African teams on their soil. Just as it is also no coincidence that the Brumbies, coached at the time by a South African in Jake White, are the only foreign team to have won a play-off game at altitude. It is much tougher to win at altitude in a knock-out game than it is during the regular season when you can plan for it long before the time. Altitude is an advantage that the Lions should want to hold onto, but it is not in their hands. That will come down to the Wellington game.
Just how realistic the championship aspirations of the winning team in the later semifinal on Saturday will be should hinge heavily on who wins the first game in Wellington earlier in the day. If it is the Hurricanes, the inscribers may as well start inscribing the Hurricanes name on the trophy.
This past weekend’s play-off games all went the way most critics would have anticipated. The Brumbies did show the value of home ground advantage and the importance of having David Pocock back by being unlucky to lose their game in Canberra to a Highlanders team that did look tired later in the game. They’ve travelled a long way over the past month and that gives the Lions an excellent chance of victory on Saturday.
But the Hurricanes, Chiefs and Lions were all too good for their opponents, with the Lions victory over Crusaders underlining what everyone knew already, which is that they are a long way ahead of the rest of the South African teams at present. The Lions did what they had to do – which was to take a cue from the Bulls team of 2010 by hitting the Crusaders hard at the kick-off. It was their early flurry that set them on their path to victory.
The Stormers were stepping into the unknown against the Chiefs as they hadn’t played a New Zealand team this season. Fleck had never made any secret of his concern about that, and at Newlands that concern was vindicated as the Cape side found themselves incapable of matching a tempo and intensity that they had not experienced from any previous opponent in 2016.
The Sharks were abjectly poor in Wellington and played much of the game looking like a team that just didn’t want to be there. Which they probably didn’t. The Sharks players would have known deep down that they were on mission impossible, and they played like they felt like that.
It was a low way to end a Sharks season that probably still delivered more than should have been expected when they started out on a campaign where they faced a ridiculously tough schedule and taking the departure of star players and last year’s spectacular failures into account.
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