Super 15 preview: Elimination Finals
NZ HERALD rugby writer Dylan Cleaver looks ahead towards the Super 15 elimination finals and whether both New Zealand will advance.
BLUES v WARATAHS
Referee: Chris Pollock
Mike Greenaway (Natal Mercury): Blues
Andrew Slack (Wallaby legend): Blues
Dylan Cleaver (NZ Herald): Blues
Rachel Glucina (Herald on Sunday): Blues
Wynne Gray (NZ Herald): Blues
The Waratahs started the year with a bang. Heard that one before? This was shaping as their year. What, you've that one before too? They started to falter against teams that could match and exceed their physicality. Let me guess, you've heard that one too? In the end, the Waratahs had to go back-to-back to sneak into the playoffs, something they did with aplomb, smashing the Highlanders and Brumbies. They might struggle without Tatafu Polota-Nau, replaced Manly shopping mall security guard Elvis Taione, and Luke Burgess.
The Blues have abandoned the yo-yo effect of recent years and instead went on a long winning run before a troubling four-match losing streak from May 13 to June 11. Having finally settled on Stephen Brett as their best option at No 10, the Blues look poised to win a trip to Brisbane.
WHAT TO WATCH
According to the All Black coach, the signalled move of Kurtley Beale into first five-eighths could be a red herring. Beale has been arguably the most potent attacking force in the Super 15 this year and has been hard to track, even harder to stop, when chiming in from the back. Henry feels that attacking thrust might be lost if he plays at No 10. Phil Waugh disagrees. "Kurtley's been unbelievable, I think, in the last month," Waugh said.
"He's feeling good, we're all feeling good every time he's got the ball in his hands, so obviously the more that happens, the better."
CRUSADERS v SHARKS
Referee: Bryce Lawrence
Mike Greenaway: Crusaders
Andrew Slack: Crusaders
Dylan Cleaver: Crusaders
Rachel Glucina: Crusaders
Wynne Gray: Crusaders
On statistics alone, you almost have to write off the Sharks as no chance. You can count the number of teams travelling to South Africa from New Zealand, or from South Africa to New Zealand, who have won knockout games on one hand. One finger in fact. The Highlanders beating the Stormers in 1999 was the only knockout game won by the away team in 12 South Africa-New Zealand playoffs. These two played earlier in the unfamiliar territory of Twickenham in March and the Crusaders looked a class apart in their 44-28 win. If you were being absolutely honest, the Crusaders have rarely looked that potent since, which is not to denigrate their remarkable achievements this season.
The Sharks pulled off a minor miracle by travelling to Loftus and beating the red-hot Bulls in a must-win match. They will need the same sort of resolve to stand any chance here.
WHAT TO WATCH
Trafalgar Park bursting at the seams. It depends on the rebuild process at AMI Stadium to some extent, but it's unlikely you'll see many more Super rugby playoff games in Nelson. The park has proved it can handle round robin matches, but this is as good a World Cup road test as they could have wished for.