Preview: Chiefs v Crusaders
Whichever side, the Chiefs or Crusaders, wins their Investec Super Rugby semi-final on Saturday they will have the comfort of knowing they deserve their place in the final.
LAST TIME: Crusaders 43 def Chiefs 15, Round 19, 2013 at AMI Stadium
WALKING WOUNDED: The Chiefs had concerns at training during the week. Flanker Sam Cane had neck issues while the ice came in handy for hooker Hika Elliott, lock Brodie Retallick, props Ben Tameifuna and Ben Afeaki, and Tanerau Latimer. Already missing from the line-up that started the season is utility back Tim Nanai-Williams and three-quarter Richard Kahui. No such reported problems for the Crusaders who are only missing centre Robbie Fruean from their A line-up, the centre having required open heart surgery to miss the end of the campaign.
FORM: Semi-finals always beg the question, after a play-offs elimination when the two highest-placed teams enjoy a week off, about whether it is in the best interests of a side to have a break or to keep playing. That consideration is pushed further with all sides having three weeks off a month before, therefore putting the need for a break before the semi-finals under the spotlight. Whatever the statistics say, the fact is in this instance that the Crusaders unleashed their best form last weekend in the qualifying game while the Chiefs had time to ponder their 26-16 win over the Blues in their last appearance. But what was probably more on their mind was the preceding game when beaten 15-43 in Christchurch by Saturday night's opposition.
The semi-final contest is an intriguing prospect for all manner of reasons. The Chiefs are defending champions and enjoy fantastic home support. They have carried the mantle of defending champions with dignity throughout the competition without quite managing the dominance they achieved last year. Whether that is the result of second season syndrome for coach Dave Rennie or the greater respect received from an opponents will be borne out in time.
The Crusaders have long been heralded as Super Rugby's finest franchise, although it is 2008 since they last held the trophy. But one of the qualities that has served the Crusaders well has been their ability on the road. Of their 10 final appearances, six have been on the road with three of them resulting in victories. It was clear in their final home game to beat the Reds last week they had touched the heights and the question now is whether that was down to a below par opponent.
WE THINK: The winner of this semi-final is likely to be the winner of the Super Rugby title for 2013. The Chiefs need their best effort of the year to put away a Crusaders team on top of its game. But for sheer bloodymindedness it would be hard to go past a Chiefs pack with its dander up. They had their pride dented in the last encounter and have had time to ponder that result. By the same token the Crusaders can reflect on the 19-28 loss they suffered when they last visited Hamilton. It has all the hallmarks of a classic contest with two of the game's best playmakers of the moment, Dan Carter for the Crusaders and Aaron Cruden for the Chiefs, calling the shots. Whoever gets the best service is likely to dictate the outcome.
We pick the Crusaders by seven.