The Crusaders have the power game to nullify the Chiefs’ attacking strengths in Saturday’s semi-final in Christchurch, writes CRAIG LEWIS.
The Saders have proven beyond doubt this season that they are a complete team that boasts the ability to effectively adapt their approach depending on the conditions and opposition they happen to face.
Last Saturday, the seven-time champs produced a superb tactical performance to arm-wrestle the Highlanders into submission as they clinched a comfortable 17-0 win in wet-weather conditions.
Having established ascendancy at the set pieces, breakdown and in the kicking battle, the Crusaders had the playoff pragmatism to play to the conditions and power their way to a 15th win of the season.
They now stand on the brink of becoming the first Super Rugby side to win 16 games in a single season, which would also take them one step closer to a first title since 2008.
There is every reason to believe another final appearance beckons when one looks at the Crusaders' all-round statistics this season.
According to Opta stats, the Crusaders are among the top three teams in terms of carries, metres made, clean breaks and defenders beaten.
They have also averaged the most time in possession of any side so far this season, with this belligerent ball-in-hand approach seeing them average less than 20 kicks out of hand per game (rank 14).
It also means they have had to make the second-least number of tackles on average per game, although their tackle percentage hovers at a healthy 84.
As opposed to last weekend, the weather forecast suggests a cold, but clear evening in Christchurch, and while the Chiefs will be quite happy about that, the Crusaders certainly won’t see any need to conduct a rain dance.
The Saders have proven themselves to be a brutal bulldozing machine this season. They have scored a whopping 47 tries in the quarters before and after half-time, while they have conceded a measly six tries in the final 20 minutes all season.
After four to six phases, the Crusaders have also crossed the tryline on 18 occasions, while recording 13 tries after seven or more phases in a prime example of their patience and accuracy on attack.
The Saders also boast an All Blacks-laden pack, with a lineout success of 92% (rank 1) and a 94% scrum success (notably second to that of the Chiefs at 97%).
In short, the Chiefs will know that after travelling all the way back from a hard-fought encounter against the Stormers, they are now set for a bruising clash against the Crusaders.
The home team will look to dominate the Chiefs in the physical exchanges and at the breakdown, while depriving them of the possession needed to unleash dangerous runners such as Damian McKenzie (top-ranked for defenders beaten, 74) and James Lowe (top-ranked for clean breaks, 37).
The Chiefs have also struggled with discipline this season (averaging 10.5 penalties per game), and so the Crusaders will be looking for Richie Mo’unga to clean up his goal-kicking act.
Ultimately, the Crusaders have never lost a playoff fixture at home, and that proud record should remain intact after this weekend.
Stats and facts
- The Crusaders won 31-24 when these teams met in round 13 this season, which was their first win against the Chiefs since 2014.
- This will be the third playoff meeting between these teams after they met in the semi-finals of both 2012 and 2013, with the Chiefs earning wins in both, but by no more than three points on either occasion.
- The Crusaders have never lost a playoff fixture when playing as the home team (won 17).
- The Crusaders (17 minutes, 47 seconds) average the most time in possession of any team so far this season, while the Chiefs (14 minutes 19 seconds) average the least.
- Only Damian McKenzie (74) has beaten more defenders than David Havili (58) so far this campaign.
- James Lowe has made 37 clean breaks so far this season; four more than any other player, and has found the tryline in five of his last six games against the Crusaders.
Crusaders – 15 David Havili, 14 Israel Dagg, 13 Jack Goodhue, 12 Ryan Crotty, 11 Seta Tamanivalu, 10 Richie Mo'unga, 9 Bryn Hall, 8 Kieran Read, 7 Matt Todd, 6 Jordan Taufua, 5 Sam Whitelock (c), 4 Scott Barrett, 3 Owen Franks, 2 Codie Taylor, 1 Joe Moody.
Subs: 16 Ben Funnell, 17 Wyatt Crockett, 18 Michael Alaalatoa, 19 Luke Romano, 19 Pete Samu, 20 Mitchell Drummond, 21 Mitchell Hunt, 23 George Bridge.
Chiefs – 15 Damian McKenzie, 14 Tim Nanai-Williams, 13 Anton Lienert-Brown, 12 Charlie Ngatai, 11 James Lowe, 10 Aaron Cruden (co-c), 9 Tawera Kerr-Barlow, 8 Michael Leitch, 7 Sam Cane (co-c), 6 Liam Messam, 5 Brodie Retallick, 4 Mitchell Brown, 3 Nepo Laulala, 2 Nathan Harris, 1 Kane Hames.
Subs: 16 Liam Polwart, 17 Aidan Ross, 18 Atu Moli, 19 Dominic Bird, 20 Lachlan Boshier, 21 Finlay Christie, 22 Stephen Donald, 23 Shaun Stevenson.
Photo: Mark Kolbe/Getty Images