In a game where goal-kicking and territorial dominance is going to shape the result, Morné Steyn will be the Bulls' key player against the Brumbies, writes RYAN VREDE.
I wrote before Sunday's riveting play-off between the Brumbies and the Cheetahs that the pattern of the match would resemble a Test. All the statistics pointed to a cagey affair, with neither side likely to take risks, and scoring opportunities would be limited. Ultimately the Brumbies' superior goal-kicking was decisive, with their 15 points being collected through penalties.
The Cheetahs' Riaan Smit left seven points on the field through a missed penalty and two conversions (including an 80th minute attempt), and such is the small margin for error in matches of this nature, that is often terminal to the cause.
There were other areas of the game in which the Brumbies were second best, including the breakdown. Indeed, this too was predictable, with the Canberra side coming into the play-off match having conceded more turnovers on average per game in this facet of play than any other side in the tournament. Furthermore, they also topped the charts for the average number of penalties conceded per game (11), and that will be a source of great encouragement for the Bulls.
Their discipline was relatively good against the Cheetahs, but that area of their game will be tested far more sternly by the Bulls, particularly with Steyn capable of driving them back into their territory or launching high kicks that serve to advance their field position if the chase is good and defence strong.
The Bulls' method is well known but extremely difficult to counter if executed well. And Steyn's accuracy has been central to the success of that tactic this season. Territory has been the noose with which they have hanged their opponents. No side in the tournament has forced more penalties between the opposition's goal-line and 10m line – prime real estate for a goal-kicker of Steyn's calibre – and the Brumbies will be extremely wary of ill-discipline here. Steyn has kicked at 86% this Super Rugby season, by some distance the highest success rate in the tournament.
In Nic White, Jesse Mogg, Matt Toomua and Christian Lealiifano, the Bumbies have the tactical kickers for the arm-wrestle, but I've seldom seen the Bulls outlasted in this regard at Loftus, certainly not when Steyn is playing well. Even the mighty Crusaders have been ousted regularly in Pretoria in recent history, with Steyn at the heart of many of those wins.
Certainly, the current Bulls side cannot be compared to the world-class units that won the title in 2009 and 2010, but their kicking game remains formidable, as does their defensive structure (which includes highly competent aerial contesters). These characteristics are essential to success in knock-out rugby.
With both these sides ranking low in the 'time in possession' stakes (reinforcing the assertion that neither mind playing without the ball) and also mid-ranking in metres made in the carry, clean breaks and defenders beaten, it is unlikely that you'll see the razzle-dazzle that should be a feature of the Chiefs and Crusaders' semi-final. And in that type of environment, few trump Steyn.
To nullify his influence the Brumbies will have to reduce the time and space he has with his boot. That begins with winning the gainline and breakdown battles and stifling their attacking platform from set phases.
Steyn has the inside lane for the Springboks' No 10 shirt for the Rugby Championship and will want to make another statement about his value in tight matches.
Photo: Steve Hagg/Gallo Images
Five takeaways from past weekend
What we learned from the quarter-finals of Super Rugby, according to CRAIG LEWIS.
Lions must learn from Sharks scare
The Lions can still go on to win this season’s Super Rugby title, but they need to heed the lessons learned from their last two major playoff games, writes CRAIG LEWIS.
Stormers lack smarts to advance
The Stormers won’t break their playoff curse until smarter decisions are taken in terms of tactics and player recruitment, writes JON CARDINELLI.