Canterbury Crusaders coach Robbie Deans has urged his weary players to stay on track for a seventh Super 14 rugby title when they play their semi-final today against Wellington.
The Crusaders have begun to look worn in recent weeks, but Deans hopes the onset of the playoffs will stimulate their fighting spirit in the match at Christchurch.
Later today, the New South Wales Waratahs and the Sharks meet in Sydney in the second semi-final, leaving open the possibility that any one of the Super 14 countries — Australia, New Zealand or South Africa — could host next week’s final.
Canterbury are best-placed to do so, despite the fact they will limp into today’s match on the back of a loss to the Otago Highlanders and after a series of narrow wins.
They finished the season 12 points clear of New South Wales at the top of the standings, a margin which seemed to emphatically prove their billing as the best team in the competition.
However, recent matches have exposed a number of unusual weaknesses in Canterbury’s game — notably their scrum and midfield defense — and although they will be strong favorites to beat the Hurricanes, their title claim is not undisputed.
Deans, who has led the Crusaders to nine finals and six titles, believes his team will recover their best form and prove their favoritism in the heat of the playoffs. He has made five changes to spark that improvement, strengthening his front row and benching All Blacks prospect Stephen Brett to establish a new midfield combination.
“You don’t get to this part of the competition without earning the right,” Deans said. “There [are] four teams who’ve earned the right and the reality is there’ll only be two left after the weekend.”
History strongly favors the Crusaders to push past the fourth-placed Hurricanes to a home final and a valedictory championship for Deans, who will leave the most successful Super 14 franchise at the end of the season to coach Australia.
Canterbury are the only team in the history of the Super 12 or Super 14 to win the championship from fourth place: they did so in 1999. Only four teams in 12 years have managed to reach the final from third or fourth place at the end of the regular season.
Of 12 finals to date, 11 have been won by teams which placed first or second on the table and seven by the first-placed team.
The Waratahs enter the Sydney match in sustained winning form, while the Sharks lost three of five matches in Australia and New Zealand before recovering momentum on their return to South Africa.
Waratahs captain Phil Waugh has called on his players to “back themselves” and to be prepared to take risks, despite the high stakes of playoffs rugby.
“We just want guys, if they see something’s on, then to back themselves to take it,” Waugh said. “It’s more about confidence to play rather than being nervous and going into our shells.”
The Sharks enter the match with confidence after a 47-25 win last week over the Waikato Chiefs. Until that match, their inability to post big scores had been their most conspicuous weakness.
Muir and Waratahs coach Ewen McKenzie are both leaving their posts at the end of the season, but the Sharks coach was eager to play down that emotional aspect.
“It is not about me, it’s about the players,” Muir said. “It’s about the Sharks and the distance we have traveled over the last three years. The guys deserve to go all the way.”