Preview: Chiefs set for Crusaders onslaught
Fri, 27 Jul 2012 5:41a.m.
The Chiefs must shrug off a week of inactivity and a stumbling finish to the regular season to repel the challenge of the Crusaders first Super Rugby semifinal.
The Chiefs finished second behind South Africa's Stormers in the overall standings, and had a bye in last weekend's first round of playoffs in which the Crusaders beat the Bulls 28-13.
Two of the Chiefs' four regular-season defeats came in the last two weeks of the season, when they went down 28-21 to the Crsuaders and 28-25 to the Hurricanes.
The Crusaders have won seven Super rugby titles and have reached the semifinals 14 times in 17 years. In contrast, the Chiefs has never won the tournament, made the final once - beaten convincingly by the Bulls in 2009 - and have only reached the semifinals three times in 17 years.
But the Chiefs stayed at or near the top of the standings throughout the longest-ever regular season in Super 15, producing what has arguably been the best year in their history.
First-season coach Dave Rennie said his players aim to round off an outstanding effort by progressing to the final.
"You might have been a brave man to predict we would get a home semi but a lot of credit for that has to go to our boys who have worked hard and put us in this position," Rennie said.
"The hardest thing about winning a title often is qualifying. We have got this far so may as well put in another couple of big efforts."
Rennie has made only a few adjustments to his lineup for Friday's match, focusing on strengthening its set pieces which were a weakness in the late stages of the regular season. Loosehead prop Sona Taumalolo, the Chiefs' leading try-scorer this season with eight, returns to shore up the Chiefs' scrum which is likely to come under intense pressure from the Crusaders' pack.
Samoa international Kane Thompson returns from injury at No. 8 and Tanerau Latimer replaces Sam Cane on the openside flank, stiffening the backrow for their breakdown battle with the Crusaders loosies who are led by All Blacks captain Richie McCaw.
The Crusaders also made a change in the front row, naming Ben Franks at tighthead ahead of his brother Owen who drops to the bench. The Crusaders have three All Blacks props - the Franks brothers and Wyatt Crockett – and have rotated them in recent matches, keeping their scrum fresh and focused.
"From a scrum point of view, in the last game with the Crusaders we got put under pressure late in the game after Ben Tameifuna took a bit of a head knock, so these guys have been given another opportunity to have a crack at it," Rennie said.
"We've had a good look at what we were planning to do in that game and now it is a case of putting it out on the park."
Canterbury comes into the match after a strong finish to the regular season and a comfortable win over the Pretoria-based Bulls in last weekend's playoff, but they have shown vulnerability in recent playoff matches, losing in the semifinals in 2009 and 2010 and in last year's final after last winning the title in 2008. Coach Todd Blackadder said the Chiefs would be better equipped to threaten the Crusaders than they were late in the regular season.
"They will be better prepared," he said. "We gave them a real wake-up call and they have had two weeks to sort it out.
"I expect they will throw some new stuff out there and try and catch us off guard."
Blackadder felt Waikato's main threat may come from the inside backs combination of scrumhalf Tawera Kerr-Barlow, first-five Aaron Cruden and inside centre Sonny Bill Williams.
"(Kerr-Barlow) is the key to their game," Blackadder said. "He has had an outstanding season and Aaron Cruden and Sonny Bill give them all their go-forward.
"But if you focus one area you can often take your eye off the ball. They are a complete side; they play smart rugby."
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