WHY THE CRUSADERS WILL PREVAIL

WHY THE CRUSADERS WILL PREVAIL

by MIKE GREENAWAY

Ordinarily, you would back a home team to win a semi-final against visitors that have done the notorious long-haul. But for the team from Canterbury in southern New Zealand, these are no ordinary times and there has been something just about mythical about their Crusade this year ever since the February calamity that struck their beautiful garden city.

In fact, stick chainmail over those bearded weirdies in their front row, paint a red cross on their chests and they could be transported 1000 years back to the Christian attempt to liberate the Holy Land. Actually, old Richard the Lionheart (not to be confused with Richard McCaw) might have done a lot better had he had Ben and Owen Franks in his ranks – the way they scrum they would have been very useful manning the battering rams on Jerusalem’s walls. The same goes for the equally hirsute Whitelocks, George and Sam, who are the second set of brothers in the pack. They do keep it in the family down on the great big farm that is the South Island.

Chuck in mobile railway sleepers in Brad Thorne, Kieran Read and Corey Flynn and you get a bulldozer that has no reverse gear. At various stages of every game they have played, that pack has destroyed the opposition in the set scrums, and off the back of the advancing phalanx, Dan Carter and Sonny Bill Williams invariably have ripped apart defences. Those guys are too good to be given a running start, and that is what their scrum often gives them.

The thing with this Crusaders team is that this is the third year that the core has been together after a couple of years of rebuilding, so they were always due to mature in 2011, but to the extent of making a mockery of the notion of home ground advantage?!

It is extraordinary that they are in the semis having played not one game at their home stadium. It has been calculated that they have travelled 94 000kms on an epic Crusade that has now brought them to Cape Town, and if they win they will play a final in Brisbane, taking them well over the 100 000km travel mark for their campaign.

Further, it has been largely forgotten that they lost their very first match of the season – the Blues beat them 24-22 in Auckland on February 19. The next week tragedy struck their home city and their second match – against the Hurricanes – was called off and the teams were awarded two points each. That amounted to two log points from a possible 10 from the first two rounds, plus the startling news that their AMI Stadium was structurally damaged and could not be used this year.

No other team in world rugby could have galvanised themselves at that disheartening revelation like the Crusaders have. Not one game in your home town over 19 rounds of the toughest competition in the world … Yet they have maintained focus and their impeccably high standards while living out of suitcases for four months, abandoning only their razors!

The Stormers are an excellent team, South Africa’s best by some margin, but the Crusaders are damn good at the best of times and when they are on a genuine Crusade – undoubtedly to provide solace to the traumatised citizens of Christchurch – they are outright special.

The Stormers will probably lose not because they are necessarily an inferior team but because the Crusaders are a virtual All Black team that this season is powered by a spirit that is bigger than rugby.

Copa America. from my mate Peter Stemmet a great blog…

greetings once more, from my mate Peter Stemmet a great blog…

This week is all about football or fútbol since we are in South America, not literally but in our hearts. Most will acknowledge that the best players are on display in Europe. That is where the television revenue is. But how many of those top stars in the European leagues are actually European?

A sizeable chunk no doubt owing to European Union employment regulations of course but where foreigners are allowed it is the African and South American stars who shine brightest. Every four years the best players in South America don their national colours and gather to compete for the Copa America.

It also happens to be the world’s oldest international football competition and has been won 14 times by Argentina and Uruguay. Brazil are on eight. On Friday the 2011 edition kicks off at La Plata’s 53 000-seater Estadio Ciudad de La Plata. In English that is the City of La Plata Stadium. Hosts Argentina play Bolivia first up.

New coach Sergio Batista is unquestionably more tactically astute than his predecessor Diego Maradonaand his greatest selection headache will be which of Carlos Tévez, Diego Milito, Gonzalo Higuain and Sergio Agüerro should play with Lionel Messi. If I were Batista I would be looking to go with three up front handing Messi a free role. Batista has selected six forwards in his squad so all indications are that a 4-3-3 or form thereof will be used.

Argentina’s real problem will be at the back. It may not be the worst idea to move captain Javier Mascherano from midfield to centre back. He has played there with aplomb for Barcelona and this would accommodate a player like Estaban Cambiasso – a man who was sorely missed in South Africa last year. As the host nation, Argentina are one of the favourites as they perennially are in the Copa’s.

The other chief contenders will be defending champions Brazil. New coach Mano Menezes has tried to reorganise the Samba Boys back to their naturally attacking best after the dogmatic Dunga approach failed spectacularly at the world cup. The Brazilians are talking up front man Neymar. I have to say I have not seen much of the boy but they are comparing him to Messi.

That could just be the bitter rivalry between the two nations coming to the fore but it is something to think about. I for one will certainly welcome Brazil playing to their naturally attacking instincts. When they are on song and in full flair, there is not a greater sight in world football.

After last year’s semi-final showing Uruguay have served notice that for the first time since 1950 they are once again on football’s world map. They last won the Copa America in 1995 and if the team plays around Diego Forlán as it did in South Africa they are undoubtedly title contenders. However, at 32 it is plausible that this could be one tournament too far for Forlán. It will also be good to see how the likes of Luis Suárez and Diego Lugano perform. The latter is getting on in age while the former is just beginning to bloom.

Chile can be seen as dark horses. After the retirement of Marcelo Salas and Iván Zamorano they were nowhere for the best part of the last decade. Now with a new generation being spearheaded by Europe’s most sought-after property Alexis Sánchez they will be physical, athletic and I believe entertaining. Also keep an eye out for Matias Fernández.

You will notice that Mexico will be at this tournament too. That is because the South American football association (CONMEBOL) invites two additional teams to join the ten CONMEBOL nations. The Mexicans, fresh (read exhausted) from the Gold Cup, will send a largely Under-23 squad. Five players will be over that age and I doubt they can be viewed as title hopefuls.

The other invitee is Costa Rica. They qualified for successive world cups in 2002 and 2006 but back then they had a wonderfully enterprising striker named Paulo Wanchope. From this tournament I expect them to receive one swift chop resulting in first round elimination. Mind you, they are in Group A with Bolivia so the wooden spoon may not be as inevitable as thought. That said they too should be exhausted from the Gold Cup.

Herewith my predictions:

Argentina to win Group A with Colombia as runners-up. Brazil to sweep Group B with Paraguay as number two. Uruguay to take Group C with Chile ending second.

The two best third-placed teams will also qualify for the quarter-finals but trying to guess this is as good as asking me to rewrite this paper in Latin American Spanish.

But why not try anyway? Ecuador and Mexico’s Olympic lot.

That leaves us with a quarter-final line-up which reads as follows: Argentina vs Ecuador/Mexico, Colombia vs Chile, Brazil vs Ecuador/Mexico, Uruguay vs Paraguay.

The final four to be Argentina, Chile, Brazil and Uruguay with an Argentina-Brazil final and La Albiceleste to lift their first Copa America since 1993.

I’ll blog daily about the tournament as well on http://perfectpete.wordpress.com

Hasta la vista!

Richie McCaw says he’s ready to play whatever role the Crusaders require of him this week

Richie McCaw says he’s ready to play whatever role the Crusaders require of him this week as his team continues its remarkable Super Rugby journey with a semifinal visit to the Stormers in Cape Town.

McCaw confirmed at Nelson airport before boarding the first plane of many over the next few days that he’s available for selection, that his problem foot is ready for what should be a clash of test-match intensity and that he’s confident in his ability to slot in, after a couple of weeks of inactivity.

“It feels all right,” said the All Blacks captain. “It’s still not quite 100 percent but it’s certainly a lot better than it was last time I played. Having those couple of weeks off was the right thing to do. Training last week was pretty much symptom free, so I just need to get through the games now.”

The openside flanker, who will reassume the Crusaders captaincy if Todd Blackadder picks him to start, said he put himself through a rigorous week of training to prove his readiness for this week. He then had a nervous 80 minutes watching from the coach’s box at Trafalgar Park on Saturday night to see if his team-mates could keep their season alive.

They obliged in some style, running away from the Sharks over the second 40 of the semifinal qualifier to secure a commanding 36-8 victory. That earned the Crusaders one more massive road trip that will take their mileage for the season past the 100,000km mark.

The Crusaders returned to Christchurch this morning and then had time only to say their goodbyes to family and friends at the airport before boarding a flight to Sydney where they were to complete their recovery process and stay overnight.

From there they were on an early Monday flight through to Johannesburg, and then a short transfer south to the coastal city of Cape Town where the well-rested Stormers are waiting after their weekend off.

But McCaw said one more long trip on the never-ending tour that has been the Crusaders’ historic quake-ravaged season would be nothing his men couldn’t handle.

“We’ve done it enough times and that’s just the reality of what you’ve got to do to win the thing,” said the classy flanker of the big haul to the Republic. “We’re going to go over there expecting to do well and do the job. If you go over with an out you won’t [win]. That’s the way we’ll approach it. We’ve done that all year, we’ve been all over the place and not used any of that as an excuse and this week will be no different.”

“I don’t know what Todd’s plan is this week but I’ll certainly put my name in the mix,” he said. “I suppose the one thing is I’ve done it before. I’ve just got to get out there and get stuck in. I’m just lucky I’m available before the season’s finished. That’s exciting and now I’ve just got to get into it.”Luckily for the Crusaders the vastly experienced McCaw – he has played 94 tests – is exactly the sort of player who will handle slotting back into a winning team at such a vital stage of the season.

With Sonny Bill Williams and Sean Maitland both coming through their return matches against the Sharks unscathed (Williams required a few stitches afterwards following a cut to his hand) and McCaw now added to the mix, the seven-time champions are all but at full strength for a remarkable 10th straight semifinal appearance.

“We take a wee bit of confidence in that but you’ve got to do the job now and it’s not going to be easy,” added McCaw as his men looked to repeat their round-robin victory at Newlands. “They’ll be hurting from what happened that first time, they’ve had a week off to freshen up, and we’ve just got to make sure we meet their physicality. That’s what we did last time and how we got on top.”

McCaw said physicality was the hallmark of the Stormers but by no means their only attribute.

“They’ve got some ability to play and you saw when they came on the tour over here they played pretty good rugby – pretty efficient is probably the way I’d describe it.

“They’re a big forward pack, they get some go-forward and put the ball at the right end of the field, and they’re happy to do it in threes if need be. It’s going to be a good challenge but they’re a team if we get stuck into them, there are opportunities there too.”

The 30-year-old said he had been impressed with the second half in Nelson, where key corrections were made in areas such as the breakdown and on defence, but that an 80-minute effort would be needed this week.

And with the loose trio going well, led by a brilliant display at Trafalgar Park from Kieran Read at No 8, McCaw is aware he has high standards to live up to.

Luckily for the Crusaders he’s just the man to take that challenge on.

- Fairfax Media

Sharks /Crusaders preview

by Mike Greenaway

From a Sharks’ point of view, if ever a trend needed to be bucked in Super Rugby it is tomorrow at 9.35am. The KZN team have never beaten the Crusaders in New Zealand in the 15-year history of the competition while the Christchurch-based team – even if they are not allowed to host matches in their earthquake-damaged city in 2011– have never lost a home knock-out game.

They have won 16 of 21 knock-out games, with three of them being away to the Bulls in South Africa (the others were away finals to the Blues and Brumbies), and that in itself is a sobering reminder to the Sharks of how tough it is to win away from home in a sudden-death match after a marathon journey.

The Sharks came close to winning on a few occasions in the ‘90s, and there was a semi-final in 1998 when referee Peter Fleming of Australia seemed to conspire against the visitors (Ian McIntosh would certainly testify to that!) in the final minutes culminating a in a costly yellow-carding of Boeta Wessels (now there is a name from the past …) and a last-minute 36-32 defeat.

The Sharks’ only overseas play-off win was in 1996 when they shocked John Eales’ top-quality Reds team in a semi-final in Brisbane.

Gary Teichmann’s Sharks were immense in putting 40 points past the Queenslanders that day, and it will require a performance of similar magnitude to derail a Crusaders team that for three months now have been motivated towards winning the title for their tragedy-struck city.

The Sharks have been based in the New Zealand capital of Wellington since arriving yesterday from Sydney and this morning will take a short flight (30-minutes) across the Cook Strait that separates the North and South Islands – and Wellington and the touristy, sea-side town of Nelson.

Coach John Plumtree has made just one change to the starting line-up that shocked the Bulls in Pretoria last week. Willem Alberts, who was one of the pace setters in the first half of the competition before injury struck, is preferred to Ryan Kankowski at No 8 in a change that is equally about Alberts now being fully over his shoulder problem (he made his comeback last week off the bench) as it is about the expected conditions – the heavy-set Alberts will be better suited to the predicted rain.

In changes to the bench, veteran opensider Jacques Botes is preferred to young Marcell Coetzee and prop Eugene van Staden ousts Wiehahn Herbst.

From Wellington, Plumtree said: “The guys are comfortable again to be in this underdog situation in that the pressure is all on the home team. Like last week against the Bulls the recipe is the same – if you are going to shock a home side you have to start well and try to sustain it.

“We can’t go through bad patches – I guess that’s one of the main things. In an overseas knock-out game you can’t have periods when you don’t perform, because that is when the home side will put you to the sword.

“While we understand that we are not going to dominate the Crusaders at home for the entire 80-minutes, we simply must have a good start, build on it, and then defend really well, while all the time working hard on our set-piece, because that is where the Crusaders work hard so hard on getting an advantage for their backs to exploit.”

Plumtree said that the underdog status suited the mindset of his team.

“We were written off against the Bulls, and we fed off that, and it is the same again this week. We have our own expectations, we’re in finals rugby and we want to be able to create history. We have never beaten the Crusaders in New Zealand and we want to do that. You have to get over hurdles to be champions – we’ve spoken a lot about that …”

Kick-off: 9.35am

Referee: Bryce Lawrence (NZ)

Crusaders: 15 Tom Marshall, 14 Sean Maitland, 13 Robbie Fruean, 12 Sonny Bill Williams, 11 Zac Guildford, 10 Daniel Carter, 9 Andy Ellis, 8 Kieran Read (capt), 7 Matt Todd, 6 George Whitelock, 5 Sam Whitelock, 4 Brad Thorn, 3 Owen Franks, 2 Corey Flynn, 1 Wyatt Crockett.

Substitutes: Quentin MacDonald, Ben Franks, Luke Romano, Jonathan Poff, Kahn Fotuali’i, Matt Berquist, Ryan Crotty/Brent Ward.

Sharks: 15 Patrick Lambie, 14 JP Pietersen, 13 Stefan Terblanche (capt), 12 Meyer Bosman, 11 Lwazi Mvovo, 10 Frederic Michalak, 9 Charl McLeod, 8 Willem Alberts, 7 Jean Deysel, 6 Keegan Daniel, 5 Alistair Hargreaves, 4 Gerhard Mostert, 3 Jannie du Plessis, 2 Bismarck du Plessis, 1 Tendai Mtawarira

Substitutes: John Smit, Eugene van Staden, Ross Skeate, Ryan Kankowski, Jacques Botes, Adrian Jacobs, Louis Ludik.

RUB OF THE GREEN

RUB OF THE GREEN

I have more vices than are good for my health but fortunately gambling is not one of them – apart from the once-a-year hunch that a big sporting upset is on the cards, so to speak.

And so it was that a found myself in a tote last Saturday having a flutter on the Sharks at 22 to 10. I thought the odds against the Sharks winning would have been greater but I guess when there are only two horses in a race and it is winner take all, the bookies are not so generous.

That hunch was born last Thursday when I saw the team picked to play the Bulls. It was the best balanced side the Sharks had fielded in four months of Super Rugby. In the front row, Jannie and Bismarck du Plessis were both back in the starting line-up (from injury and rotation respectively) and they very seldom play a bad game together.

As for the second row, Gerhard Mostert’s form has been brewing for a while and he is at last realising the potential – and raw power – that John Plumtree recognised in him when he was in a poor Lions team, while young Alistair Hargreaves for a while now has shown that he is coming of age.

In the loose trio, Ryan Kankowksi has been pulling finger since being dropped from the Bok training squad, tank flank Jean Deysel was back from suspension and irrepressible Keegan Daniel has an uncanny ability to be brilliant in big games.

In terms of the backline, it was a masterstroke to pick Frederic Michalak at 10 while keeping the exceptional skill of Patrick Lambie in the side by picking him at fullback for Louis Ludik.

Michalak brought calmness and control to the backline, not to mention penetration, when he come on against the Lions the week before and in that same game Lambie was superb when he moved to 15. So why not start them both?!

It is difficult to believe that Michalak, who is only 28, is deemed surplus to French needs with a World Cup only weeks away. Who cares? Frog loss is Sharks’ gain.

In terms of the backline that started against the Bulls, JP Pietersen and Lwazi Mvovo had already proved to be red hot, and were again brilliant against the Bulls, which brings us to the centres. Meyer Bosman has copped huge flak this year but apart from a few conspicuous mistakes, he has actually played quite well.

Super Rugby statistics show that he is one of the leading tacklers in the competition – the problem has been that when he has missed a tackle it has often led to a much publicised try. His occasional misdemeanours have seen the Stormers, for instance, scoring vital tries at Newlands and Kings Park.

But for me a telling indicator for a possible upset was the big deal made of the final games at Loftus Versfeld for Victor Matfield, Bakkies Botha, Danie Rossouw and Fourie du Preez.

Time and time again I have seen emotional farewells become unfortunate funerals when sideshows for the team concerned have been swept aside by a visiting team that is focussed only on the rugby.

Sharsk fans will recall Mark Andrews’ emotional goodbye ending in tears in a Currie Final in Durban while a very good equivalent of what happened last week in Pretoria was the 1999 Currie Cup final, when the Sharks were bidding adieu to coach Ian McIntosh and icons in Gary Teichmann, Henry Honiball and Andre Joubert.

The Lions, with a youthful AJ Venter in the vanguard, drilled them out of sight.

Another good indicator that the Sharks would perform at Loftus last week was the decision to take the team away from family and friends and bond in preparation at a retreat in Rustenburg, near Sun City.

Way back in 1990, McIntosh did the same with Natal when he bucked trends and at Sun City prepared for that historic final against the Bulls at Loftus …

by Mike Greenaway

All Blacks named a 25-man squad for two training camps in Wellington over the next fortnight.

Stephen Donald has been told his Rugby World Cup dream is over unless there are injuries to players now ahead of him in the All Blacks pecking order.

Donald’s name was notably missing today when the All Blacks named a 25-man squad selected from players outside the Crusaders and Blues to take part in two training camps in Wellington over the next fortnight.

Aaron Cruden and Colin Slade have made the mix and Henry left no doubt they were in a fight to be Dan carter’s backup.

“We just think other people are playing better right now,” Henry said of Donald’s absence.

“I talked to him about that yesterday and unless we have injuries, he’s not likely to be involved.”
Henry admitted it had been a difficult call to make to the often-maligned Donald, a 22-test veteran who was on the All Blacks’ end of year tour last season.

“It was difficult obviously because he has been a very positive member of that group for a long time. He’s a great guy to have in the team. He’s very well organised at training and those sorts of things.”

Donald didn’t have a great tour, failing to guide the All Blacks home against the Wallabies in Hong Kong.

He hasn’t been able to spark in another ordinary Chiefs Super Rugby season.

Donald has overseas offers which he is likely to now chase.

Cruden and Slade are back in the hunt after missing out on that tour last year. Slade has remained in contention despite playing little Super Rugby with the Highlanders because of two broken jaws.

Slade will return to club action in Christchurch this weekend.

Henry said they couldn’t afford to look at last year’s tour as a missed opportunity.

“You pick players on form at the time and we thought he (Donald) was the in-form five-eighth during the ITM Cup last year. But obviously you look back on those things and think about that. But that’s the reality. That’s why we selected him and that’s why things change.”

Among other notable names missing are fellow Chiefs first five-eighths Mike Delany, Chiefs flanker Tanerau Latimer and Highlanders prop Jamie Mackintosh, who have all been recent All Blacks.

Those not named seem unlikely to feature in the Tri-Nations and will struggle to break into Henry’s World Cup squad.

The Tri-Nations squad will be named on July 10.

There are three injured players also involved in the two camps – Israel Dagg, Isaia Toeava and Tony Woodcock

Henry said: “The camps are a key part of our preparation for the season and will give us a great opportunity to assess where a number of players are at after a demanding Super Rugby season.

“While the first All Blacks squad for the year won’t be named until July the 10th, these players are in contention for selection so we were keen to monitor their progress as well as further develop their skills,” Henry added.

Henry said the camps would involve mainly skill-based training and New Zealand sevens coach Gordon Tietjens, who recently led his side to their ninth sevens world series title, would take a training run on day two of the camp.

Henry said the camps would also give the All Blacks medical staff the chance to assess those injured players, as well as others carrying niggles.

Players invited to the first camp:

Chiefs: Ben Afeaki, Hikawera Elliot, Richard Kahui, Brendon Leonard, Liam Messam, Mils Muliaina and Sitiveni Sivivatu.

Hurricanes: Aaron Cruden, Hosea Gear, Andrew Hore, Cory Jane, Ma’a Nonu, Conrad Smith, Neemia Tialata, Victor Vito and Piri Weepu.

Highlanders: Jimmy Cowan, Tom Donnelly, Jarrad Hoeata, Colin Slade, Ben Smith and Adam Thomson.

Injured players: Israel Dagg, Isaia Toeava and Tony Woodcock.

The Sharks departed Johannesburg last night quite literally on a wing and prayer

The Sharks departed Johannesburg last night quite literally on a wing and prayer given that Sydney airport was closed yesterday morning because of volcanic ash in the atmosphere, although the weather forecast from New South Wales was favourable for clear skies by the time the team is due to land today – otherwise the flight will be diverted to Brisbane and another plan will have to be made to get them to Nelson for Saturday’s Super Rugby play-off against the Crusaders.

Ordinarily the Sharks would have left for a knock-out game as soon as possible, ie on the Saturday night of their victory against the Bulls at the weekend, or the next day, but they this time they are trying something different by leaving late.

One of the reasons is that fitness tests could be conducted on suspect players in Durban rather than overseas and changes made accordingly; another is that there were not enough business class seats available over the weekend meaning the squad would have had to leave in two groups, which obviously would have resulted in a disjointed arrival; thirdly invaluable training sessions with the Crusaders specifically in mind were held yesterday and on Monday free of the jet lag that would have beset the team had they been conducted in New Zealand.

Finally, the Sharks have adopted a plan to beat the jet lag that was pioneered by the Bulls and later used by the Springboks.

“We will stay on South African time for the duration of our visit,” coach John Plumtree said yesterday at a departure press conference at the Shark Tank. “For a farm boy like me it is a very foreign thing but maybe the players will be more used to going to bed at 2am and getting up at noon!”

The problem with this particular plan is that it works well for what remains of the first week, but experience shows that the tourists come a cropper in the second week on tour when the jet lag catches up with a double whammy. Of course, for the Sharks there will only be a second week if they beat the Crusaders to advance to a semi-final in Brisbane against the Reds.

In 2009, the Springboks used this plan and were brilliant in thumping the Wallabies in Perth but then sleep-walked through the next week’s match in Brisbane and were soundly beaten – the only match they lost that year in the Tri-Nations. The Sharks, though, are clearly thinking only of what will give them the best chance of beating the seven-time champions on Saturday, and fair enough.

An immediate upside to leaving late was that the Sharks gained clarity on the fitness of certain players. Steven Sykes failed a fitness test on his ankle while Odwa Ndungane was passed fit after a hand injury. The 24-man squad that left last night was the match 22 that played against the Bulls minus substitute flank Marcell Coetzee, who is replaced by veteran Jacques Botes, plus Ndungane and prop Eugene van Staden.

“Sykes would have been handy in New Zealand given the expected conditions – rain and cold is predicted for the match – but then Alistair Hargreaves and Gerhard Mostert had big games at Loftus,” Plumtree said.

The Taranaki-raised Plumtree described Nelson as a popular summer venue for tourists but was notoriously miserable in winter.

“Only the rich and famous can afford property in what is essentially a Kiwi equivalent of – in KZN terms – Umhlanga Rocks. It is a really nice seaside town but it would be better if we were playing there in February or March, when it is very pleasant!” Plumtree said.

“Having said that, I am a lot happier at this stage of the season that we have the game for inclement conditions in New Zealand,” he said. “Our forward pack is suited to competing in the wet and freezing mud, while at the back (flyhalf) Frederic Michalak knows those conditions well from France and knows how to control the game in that situation, while at fullback Patrick Lambie has an excellent kicking game.”

by Mike Greenaway

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