S15 Preview: Crusaders v Reds
A Test-like atmosphere will grip Christchurch when the Crusaders host the Reds in the first Super Rugby play-off at AMI Stadium on Saturday.
There are multiple intriguing layers to this fixture that sets it apart and promises to make for a compelling, world-class spectacle.
The return of Christchurch’s favourite son Richie McCaw from a six-month sabbatical, controversial playmaker Quade Cooper’s return to Christchurch for the first time since making his debut as an 18-year-old and the renewal of the most heated personal rivalry in the game.
There’s the history between the sides, the Reds having won three of the last four encounters including the 2011 Final to clinch their first ever Super Rugby title. The Crusaders, for their part, won the most recent meeting – edging the Reds 15-11 in Christchurch – and haven’t lost to the Reds on home soil in 14 years.
The Crusaders will take much confidence from their home record, which has also seen them win 15 of their last 16 matches against all opposition, but they will have to contend with the weight of expectation from a demanding fan base that’s growing increasingly inpatient in the midst of the longest trophy drought in the franchise’s rich history.
As travelling underdogs, the Reds essentially have nothing to lose and will have a full go at the seven-time champions. Given the high stakes, more emphasis will be put on field position but this is not to say Cooper and company won’t have a license to play instinctively and chance their arm when an opportunity presents itself.
It’s the unpredictability of the mercurial Cooper combined with the tactical prowess and composure of Will Genia that made the Reds such a dangerous side and incoming Wallaby coach Ewen McKenzie will have the faith and conviction to give the dynamic duo the freedom to do what they do best in tandem.
The Reds will be well served to employ a high-octane game built on patient phase play. They have to attack with width in an attempt to stretch the Crusaders’ defence and remain on the front foot. Attacking the flyhalf channel and playing one-off ball runners would play into the hosts’ hands and simplify their defensive duties.
Variation will be all-important and it’s in this regard where general Genia currently has no equal in world rugby. His vision and reading of the game is uncanny and his decision-making will largely determine the level of success the visitors will have on attack.
The former Wallaby captain is a master tactician and will stress the importance to earn the right to go wide. His well-roundedness also makes him the perfect man to have in the No.9 jersey as he is equally adept at unleashing his backline, putting runners into space and exploiting holes around the fringes on the front foot as he is at kicking his team into the right areas of the field on the back foot.
Of paramount importance to the visitors is the need to dictate the pace. If the Crusaders are able to turn it into a structured, tactical battle it will be a long 80 minutes for the Reds.
As tactically astute as Genia is, he is no match for the combined efficiency of Dan Carter, Israel Dagg and opposite number Andy Ellis.
It’ll thus be imperative for the Reds to quicken the pace and cause mismatches out wide for their strike runners to capitalise on.
The Crusaders’ strength lies in their innate ability to play a fast-paced running game or a cerebral tactical game with equal execution and brilliance.
While they have the class to take on the Reds at their own game, their focus should be up front and more importantly, the breakdown.
Shutting down the Genia-Cooper-led Reds at the source is a recipe for success and in George Whitelock, Matt Todd and the sublime Kieran Read, the Crusaders boast the back row to do just that.
Players to watch:
For the Crusaders: Wyatt Crockett will be the key man in the front row. The 14-Test All Black is arguably the most perennially penalised loosehead at scrum time in top-flight rugby and will need to put all his focus on this crucial facet of the game. Fit-again Luke Romano is the only change to the run-on side and gives the hosts a timely boost at No.4. Captain Kieran Read has been the heartbeat of the Crusaders this year and Israel Dagg has proved time and time again that he can turn a game on its head with a moment of individual brilliance. On the bench of course is Richie McCaw. Having played just 80 minutes of rugby in a club game last weekend, Todd Blackadder’s decision to name him on the bench is the correct one as a 20-odd-minute cameo will optimise his impact, while the World Cup-winning All Black captain’s presence on the park will be invaluable to his side should it go down to the wire.
For the Reds: Rob Simmons will play an important role in the line-outs and will also be asked to step up physically in the tight loose. Jake Schatz will win his 50th Super Rugby cap, while Will Genia’s importance cannot be overstated. Injuries have come at a cruel time for the Reds and McKenzie has subsequently been forced to name a makeshift backline of which Jono Lance, at inside centre, will have to be glue. Chris Feauai-Sautia and Dom Shipperley form a new wing pairing, while the 1.78m Ben Lucas, primarily a scrumhalf, will have to rise to the occasion under the high ball.
Head to head: Look no further than the flyhalf battle between polar opposites Dan Carter and Quade Cooper. As always, the men in the No.10 jerseys will have a major bearing on the outcome of the match and it’s their contrasting personalities and styles that make this long-time rivalry so interesting. Cooper will carry added responsibility on his shoulders as he will be sans the reassurance provided by hard-hitting Anthony Faingaa and ace goal-kicker Mike Harris, both of whom are injured. At No.5, Sam Whitelock and James Horwill will be locked in a vital clash. Whitelock’s a line-out genius and arguably the premier No.5 in world rugby, while the fit-again Reds and Wallaby captain is a key cog in the set-pieces and inspires his troops through his uncompromising approach. Finally, the battle at the breakdown will be spearheaded by Matt Todd and Liam Gill. Todd will have an extra spring in his step in what will be his 50th Super Rugby match and will aim to celebrate the milestone by upstaging Gill.
2012: Crusaders won 15-11, Christchurch
2011: Reds won 18-13, Brisbane (Final)
2011: Reds won 17-16, Brisbane
2010: Reds won 41-20, Brisbane
2009: Crusaders won 32-12, Christchurch
2008: Crusaders won 27-21, Brisbane
2007: Crusaders won 33-22, Christchurch
2006: Crusaders won 47-21, Brisbane
Prediction: The Crusaders are seemingly peaking at the perfect time while the Reds have won just three of their last six. Whereas the hosts have been able to build momentum in recent weeks, the Reds only recommenced their campaign last weekend and could be undercooked, especially in the first quarter. Home ground advantage goes a long way, but the Crusaders also possess superior loose forwards and tactical/goal kickers that will see them through to the semifinals. Crusaders by six.
Crusaders: 15 Israel Dagg, 14 Tom Marshall, 13 Ryan Crotty, 12 Tom Taylor, 11 Zac Guildford, 10 Dan Carter, 9 Andy Ellis, 8 Kieran Read (captain), 7 Matt Todd, 6 George Whitelock, 5 Sam Whitelock, 4 Luke Romano, 3 Owen Franks, 2 Corey Flynn, 1 Wyatt Crockett.
Replacements: 16 Ben Funnell, 17 Joe Moody, 18 Luke Whitelock, 19 Richie McCaw, 20 Willi Heinz, 21 Tyler Bleyendaal, 22 Adam Whitelock.
Reds: 15 Ben Lucas, 14 Dom Shipperley, 13 Ben Tapuai, 12 Jono Lance, 11 Chris Feauai-Sautia, 10 Quade Cooper, 9 Will Genia, 8 Jake Schatz, 7 Liam Gill, 6 Eddie Quirk, 5 James Horwill (captain), 4 Rob Simmons, 3 James Slipper, 2 Saia Faingaa, 1 Greg Holmes.
Replacements: 16 Albert Anae, 17 Jono Owen, 18 Ed O'Donoghue, 19 Radike Samo, 20 Beau Robinson, 21 Nick Frisby, 22 Luke Morahan.
Date: Saturday, July 20
Venue: AMI Stadium, Christchurch
Kick-off: 19.35 (17.35 NSW/ACT time, 09.35 SA time, 07.35 GMT)
Expected weather: Mild with increasing clouds. A high of 17° and low of 3° with a light north wind.
Referee: Jaco Peyper (South Africa)
Assistant referees: Garratt Williamson (New Zealand), Mike Fraser (New Zealand)
TMO: Vinny Munro (New Zealand)
By Quintin van Jaarsveld