Super charged: Odds stacked against Australian sides in the quarter-finals

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 Credit: PA Images
Credit: PA Images

Making its return, we bring you Super charged, in which we preview the main talking points ahead of the Super Rugby Pacific quarter-finals.

Games to watch

Crusaders v Reds

The Crusaders and the Reds face off for the second time in as many weeks but with much more at stake in the Super Rugby Pacific quarter-finals.

Last time out, the score ended 28-15 in favour of the Crusaders. The side have never really found their most potent line-up this season, particularly in the loose forwards, with coach Scott Robertson making frequent changes in that department.

However, the team selected this week is littered with All Blacks and might be the team Robertson has been building towards.

Superstar Richie Mo’unga headlines several changes and will be integral to the side’s attacking structure this weekend. The fly-half is a Super Rugby legend and has always been one for the big stage.

There is strength across the park rounded out by full-back Will Jordan whose performances this season have well and truly powered his team to the position they are in. Jordan’s ability to attack is jaw-dropping, and no doubt he will be on hand to add to his brilliant scoring rate whilst linking up with venomous outside backs Leicester Fainga’anuku and Sevu Reece.

The Reds, meanwhile, are terribly missing a player of James O’Connor’s ability. Stand-in playmaker Lawson Creighton has played good rugby and, for the most part, has stood up in O’Connor’s absence, but the veteran’s influence on players around him is irreplaceable.

Number eight, Harry Wilson has made himself impossible to ignore this season, leading the competition by a significant margin in carries with a whopping 187 completed.

Suliasi Vunivalu is always a danger on the wing but has failed to produce during an injury-hampered season. It is now or never for the former league man if he is to make his mark for the Queenslanders.

Play-off time is Crusaders time. The Christchurch-based side has not been at their best this season, but they will be this weekend. Big game temperament is seemingly drummed into the culture and ethos of the Crusaders, and that will not change.

The Reds are going to need more than just the bounce of the ball to stay in the play-offs.

Chiefs v Waratahs

The Chiefs have had a solid season, with a late surge taking them above the Brumbies into third place, earning them a home quarter-final against the Waratahs, who have been resurgent.

The New Zealand side has had to deal with an injury crisis in the second-row but came through the challenge brilliantly, with youngsters Josh Lord and Tupou Vaa’i filling the void well. Now veteran Brodie Retallick returns to the fold in good time to inevitably impact the pack’s performance at set-piece in particular.

Losing captain Sam Cane to injury is a big blow, but the form of Luke Jacobson and Pita Gus Sowakula will be enough to impact the game.

The backline has been brilliant with another good season from Brad Weber, who has aided fly-half Bryn Gatland’s rise to prominence in the Chiefs set-up. However, like most New Zealand sides, there is danger everywhere, with Quinn Tupaea continuing to build on his stature and reputation in the game.

Keep an eye on wing Jonah Lowe who is as true a finisher as they come, as four tries in the league game against the Waratahs earlier this season suggests.

The Sydneysiders have shown immense growth and backbone this season, with prop Angus Bell and second-row Jed Holloway putting their hands up repeatedly for the New South Wales side.

Michael Hooper will always perform on the field and is one of Australia’s greatest players in the modern era. The flanker will make an impact on the game.

Fly-half Tane Edmed and captain Jake Gordon have combined very well in the half-back combination this season and will need to be perfectly in sync against the Chiefs.

The key to challenging the Chiefs will be two-pronged for the Waratahs. Firstly, they cannot allow the Chiefs’ forwards to get physical dominance. Secondly, disrupting the half-back combination of the Chiefs is imperative as Gatland is the decision-maker most likely to fold under pressure despite a promising season.

Player to watch – Rieko Ioane (Blues)

Ioane has been a standout performer in a silky smooth Blues backline this season. His attributes are tremendous, most notably his remarkable turn of pace that is brilliant in attacking the outside channels or cutting through the defensive line.

There is a sense of maturity about the 25-year-old this season, who has formed a solid midfield pairing with code-hopping Roger Tuivasa-Sheck, that has not gone unnoticed by the All Blacks coaching staff.

New Zealand coach Ian Foster said Ioane had taken his game to new heights this season, suggesting he is likely the first choice 13 for the All Blacks.

None of that matters ahead of this weekend as Ioane needs to continue his sublime form against his robust opposite number Thomas Umaga-Jensen. The match-up could suit the rapid centre as he certainly has the pace on the Highlander and is not one to shy away from a physical battle.

Having shown all this growth, the knockouts are critical for Ioane to prove his worth in the crunch moments. He has the ability to change a game and should be expected to fire the Blues through the play-offs.

Expect the All Black to be a try threat. If the Highlanders struggle with the Blues’ tempo, Ioane will absolutely tear their backline apart.

One-v-one battle to watch – Nic White (Brumbies) v TJ Perenara (Hurricanes)

Two veterans square off in the battle of the scrum-halves this week. White has been immense for the Brumbies this season, showing his prowess technically with brilliant distribution, a solid kicking game and sniping runs.

What the veteran adds to his foundational skill-set is his ability to get in the face and under the skin of opposition players and officials, whether it is hounding his opposite number at the base of a scrum or ruck, or providing full commentary for the referee.

White is a slippery customer who is just waiting for any kinks in the defensive structure or avenues to exploit and squeeze out a penalty.

The Australian is a very intelligent rugby player and will need all of his experience to power his side over the line this weekend.

Perenara is a different kind of player, but he shares the soft skills of being in the face of opposition and is a master at communicating, sometimes forcefully, with match officials.

The most significant difference between the two is the prolific nature of Perenara, who is perilously
close to becoming the all-time top try scorer in Super Rugby history, only two tries behind Israel Folau.

The scrum-half will inevitably be a try threat, scoring himself or creating around him. If Perenara controls the game’s tempo, the Brumbies could be dead in the water.

Subplot to watch – Brumbies have to fly the Australian flag or it is all-New Zealand semi-finals

Weighing up the match-ups certainly does not make for good reading from an Australian standpoint. The odds are stacked against their teams despite a mini-resurgence this season.

The Brumbies have been the pick of the bunch the entire season, showing some form of old and sat right up near the summit of the table for the majority of the season until dropping to fourth place in the final round.

The threat of all-New Zealand semi-finals is genuine, and the Canberra-based outfit is the best placed to prevent that when they welcome the hit or miss Hurricanes for a home quarter-final.

No Australian teams in the semi-finals would mean all the growth and development discussed within the rugby circles in the country would fall away. The Brumbies undoubtedly deserve a semi-final spot, but can the side play the big moments in the play-offs? Big players are needed to stand up and deliver as the stage grows towards the final.

To put it plainly, the Brumbies have the best chance to define Australia’s Super Rugby Pacific season positively.

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