South Africa will boast a Super Rugby finalist for the fourth time in six seasons after the Sharks produced one of the finest away wins in the Vodacom Super Rugby season, thanks to their powerhouse pack and their accomplished backs against the Reds in Brisbane. Either the Sharks or the Stormers will now play in the final depending on the outcome of their semi-final encounter this coming Saturday at Newlands in Cape Town.
The Sharks’ brave, committed defensive efforts and their accuracy when presented with turn-over possession contributed to their 30-17 win against the defending Super Rugby champions.
The Stormers might be boasting the return of Duane Vermeulen and Eben Etzebeth. They will need these two players as the Sharks looked superb in the collisions and were seldom beaten in the line outs or scrums against the Reds.
The enterprise and interplay by the Sharks were also encouraging from a South African perspective.
Marcell Coetzee produced a gem of a performance in the loose play and JP Pietersen continued to dazzle and excel. He is arguably one of the very best right wings in international rugby at present.
The Reds were also lucky not to concede a fourth try when Bismarck du Plessis sent Meyer Bosman away with a one-handed pass, only for the substitute-centre to spill it with the line beckoning.
The presence of Du Plessis and Willem Alberts would cause the Stormers some headaches. These two strong runners were able to put the Stormers on the proverbial back foot a few weeks ago in their league encounter in Durban.
The Stormers might be able to upstage the Sharks in the midfield, where the hosts will rely on the excellence and flair of Jean de Villiers and Juan de Jongh to breach the defense of the visitors. Not that Paul Jordaan or Tim Whitehead were bad against the Reds. The young Jordaan has got some jet shoes on and his ability to take the outside break at pace will test the Newlands' hosts.
The Reds suffered the past season having been denied the service of their mercurial flyhalf, Quade Cooper through injury. And then, due to his one week suspension, he was not able to feature in the playoff. His replacement, Ben Lucas, was injured early on in the game, forcing the Reds to shift Will Genia to fly-half. This did not help the Reds’ cause, but they were also stunned by some very enterprising attacking play from the Sharks, who used the blind side cleverly to score three tries.
The Crusaders and the Chiefs will contest the other semifinal after the Crusaders, seven-time Super Rugby champions, thrashed the Bulls 28-13 on Saturday.
Daniel Carter scored 23 points and set up the try by Zac Guildford thanks to pinpoint passing.
Richie McCaw was superb in the loose, and his presence made a massive impact on their dominance of the collisions.
The aggressive Crusaders used superior numbers at the breakdowns to counter ruck and shove the Bulls off the ball. Completely outnumbering the Bulls at the breakdowns, they prevented the visitors from getting hands on the ball.
The Bulls also made silly errors which allowed Carter to punish them severely with penalty kicks. The pressure got to the visitors, whose kicking game was woefully off key. They conceded no less than 12 penalties, mostly within range for Carter’s accurate boot.
It was hardly the game expected of the three-time champions, but it just underlined once again just how important home advantage is. No South African team has won in Christchurch since 1997.
The Bulls played with more purpose and focus in the second half and therefore were able to show something for their commitment via tries from Dewald Potgieter and Wynand Olivier. In general, they were simply too individualistic and lacked cohesion in every facet of their play.
For the Sharks Frederic Michalac is currently playing with self-confidence, flair and excellent vision at fly-half. Judged by the performance by the French musketeer against the Reds, he will not vacate the number 10 position easily, and Patrick Lambie will probably travel to Newlands as fullback.
If the Stormers want to beat the Sharks, they will have to find a ways to neutralise their enforcers and to unsettle Michalak. That will not be easy, as the Reds discovered on one of their worst days in Brisbane.
Perhaps the performances in the scrums and the"Droid Sans, sans-serif">
Peter Grant has been excellent with the boot for most of the season, and will not give anything away for the Stormers.
The Crusaders would be deemed the favourites to beat the Chiefs in their semi-final clash.
The Chiefs finished at the top of the New Zealand conference, courtesy of an excellent start to the competition, but they stumbled in the last few games and were beaten by the Hurricanes after the hooter had sounded in their final league game.
They also lost a high-profile match against the Crusaders towards the end of the season, and will start the semi-final game against the seven-time champions as the proverbial under dogs.