Crusaders v Sharks: 8.25am, Sat, Sky Sports 1 HD
This is going to be a big ask for the Sharks. It is never easy to go and play a semi-final away – especially in New Zealand. There is going to be a lot of travel fatigue involved. The Crusaders are high in confidence at the moment after a very good run, plus they have some of their superstars back in the mix, so it is going to be a tough old game for them.
We know what approach the Sharks will bring – they are not going to change the way they play the game. The battle upfront is going to be massive and the Sharks are not going to have it all their own way like they did against the Highlanders last week.
I do think that the Sharks have the opportunity to test the Crusaders backline. Pat Lambie is back at fly-half and Frans Steyn has moved to 12 which was always Jake White’s first choice combination. I think they will get a lot of forward momentum with Steyn at 12. Dan Carter is at 12 for the Crusaders and Colin Slade at 10. They are not the biggest defenders so the Sharks will put a lot of pressure in that 10-12 channel. Carter is coming back from injury so a couple of big hits up there will really test him. The Sharks also have a lot of pace out wide with Paul Jordaan at 13, Lwazi Mvovo at 11 and JP Pietersen at 14. So this is an area the Sharks can definitely exploit if they get it right.
The Sharks use their tactical kicking to put pressure on opponents too – but they have to be so accurate against the Crusaders. Against the Highlanders Cobus Reinach and Steyn’s kicking was just not good enough and it put them under a lot of pressure from the counter-attack. Israel Dagg and Nemani Nadolo will make the Sharks pay for any loose kicks.
Jake White’s style of play gets criticised a lot but the way the Sharks play is the way you win competitions. Slowing the ball down, using your set-piece to dominate, kicking for territory and frustrating the opposition. It’s not pretty but if it is done well then it is effective.
Both sides are just full of talent and everyone has to step up if they want to make the final. Shark’s skipper Bismark Du Plessis has to lead from the front and his physicality will set the tone. Willem Alberts is being used at lock with the injury to Anton Bresler so he won’t have the same running impact that he usually does. That means Jean Deysel is going to be very important for the Sharks – he came off the bench and carried the ball very well last weekend and Jake White will be looking for him to do more of that against the Crusaders.
The Crusaders also kick quite a bit but they will look to spread the Sharks defence wide and look for the mis-match. They will be encouraged by what the Highlanders did last week on attack and the Sharks' defence has to stand fast.
The Sharks can upset the odds here – traditionally they do travel well and if they can sharpen up on a couple of things – mainly their out-of-hand kicking and keeping hold of the ball – then they can put the Crusaders under a lot of pressure.
Waratahs v Brumbies: 9.40am, Sat Sky Sports 1 HD
This is another mouth-watering affair that will produce some excellent rugby. The Waratahs have certainly set the standard in this year’s competition and must be favourites. What they have done very well this year is bring that attacking flair in the backs to add to their big pack.
However the Brumbies are a very canny outfit and when you compare these two sides, well there are great match-ups in every position. I really think the bench will have a big say in this game – the Waratahs have some real fire power to call upon. I don’t think the Brumbies bench will have quite the same impact.
What the Brumbies did really well last week against the Chiefs, especially in the first half, was get over the gain line, recycle the ball quickly and move away from that breakdown. Like the Waratahs they also have a very exciting backline. Matt Toomua is playing very well at fly-half and Christian Lealiifano is also playing well. Winger Henry Speight is on fire too for the Brumbies – he really got into the game against the Chiefs and made a lot of yards.
Whoever gets the upper hand in the forwards to provide their backs with a solid platform and front-foot ball will take this game. The Brumbies may have a few concerns over their set-piece and I think the Waratahs will look to put a lot of pressure on them in these areas.
The Waratahs are looking like definite title contenders – that balance between their forward power and back flair is spot on and I expect them to make the final.