Richard Knowler - Crusaders
You have to give the Crusaders their dues.
I will be the first to admit that there is something unsettling about the sight of a reporter tap, tap, tapping at his or her keyboard, crafting a sermon about why the local sports team is so grand.
There was a degree of nationalism displayed from some All Blacks’ supporters in the media ranks when the British and Irish Lions toured recently, enough to last a short lifetime, so there is no need to fill that cup again when assessing Super Rugby teams.
But I tell you one thing: the numbers look pretty good for the Crusaders. So let’s start there.
Collecting 14 wins from 15 round-robin games isn’t just respectable. It’s a record that stands out as clear as a couple of fat diamonds sparkling in a bowl of black jelly.
The 14 victories were followed by the 17-0 triumph over a Highlanders side that got pulverised into the AMI Stadium mud during the quarterfinal last weekend, unable to compete against the Crusaders’ muscle and might in that first half.
You could say the Crusaders have had their share of luck.
There was the epic win over the Highlanders in Christchurch in round 15, an event made possible because replacement playmaker Mitchell Hunt kicked a long-range drop goal in extra-time.
Don’t forget the late comebacks against the Highlanders in Dunedin (Seta Tamanivalu claimed the match-winning try), and the Reds in Brisbane (Hunt slammed over a penalty after the final bell) in the early rounds.
But good teams make their fortune in this tournament. Victories in places like Pretoria, Bloemfontein, Suva (where they played the Chiefs) and Sydney don’t just happen because the players have correctly completed their documentation at the airport.
New coach Scott Robertson has twisted the right dials to get the Crusaders machine humming at top speed. As we witnessed against the Highlanders last weekend, he gave them a gameplan that was simple but effective. He is also extracting the best out of his players.
Robertson’s team can also play with width, and counter-attack from deep inside their half. This Crusaders team likes to play at speed and exploit space.
Beat the Chiefs in the semi at AMI Stadium on Saturday night and they will either host the Hurricanes, or travel to Jo’burg to meet the Lions, in the final.
There is a good chance they will get the job done.
Aaron Goile - Chiefs
If ever there was a hospital pass in the face of a rushing defensive line, being asked to mount a case for why the Chiefs will win Super Rugby is it.
It’s not to say they can’t do it, it’s just that everything points to them not. But therein lies the key to why they can take this thing out.
How luxurious is an underdog status going in the playoffs? Sure, there are outsiders who really should be beaten by a higher seed, but here, it’s really just travel, and location of rugby posts which would hold the Chiefs back.
This team is far from a smokey who have weaseled their way into the last four via a convoluted conference system. No, they are every bit title contenders when you lay the four sides bare. Experience, quality, and X-factor.
Their tough travel schedule means there’s absolutely no pressure on the Chiefs. Now the shackles can be thrown off, and the razzle dazzle can be brought, on what will be a firmer AMI Stadium ground this weekend.
If there’s a side who certainly don’t mind doing a bit of that, it’s the Chiefs, with that electric man Damian McKenzie holding the potential to break home-team hearts.
Don’t worry about tired legs, the Chiefs hardly got them too sore in a stop-start quarterfinal, and having learnt lessons from last year in a mirroring schedule, they improved their return trip in terms of sleep patterns and recovery.
The Chiefs have beaten the Crusaders in both their previous semifinal meetings and the last time they met in Christchurch, while they are also 2-0 against the Hurricanes this year, and the Lions haven’t even had to try to stop the skills of a Kiwi side this year.
Having won two titles already, savvy coach Dave Rennie knows what it takes at this stage of the competition. Add to that the extra motivation the team can glean from his impending departure overseas, not to mention the rest of their departing crew including stalwarts Tawera Kerr-Barlow and Aaron Cruden, and the Chiefs can certainly shake this up.
Hamish Bidwell - Hurricanes
If you’re a Canes fan you’ll now vote for them in the poll. If not, it’ll be someone else.
After all, this is not really a debate, more a beauty pageant.
I’m based out of our Wellington office and it’s my job to cover the Hurricanes. It’s a good round and they’re nice people. The winning helps, given how quickly losing teams can drop their bundle.
But this isn’t politics. I’m not some paid stooge, peddling a message on behalf of the Hurricanes Party.
You don’t always like the people you write about. Sometimes you don’t care for them at all and are quite happy to see them do poorly.
Overall, the Hurricanes seem a good bunch. It’s hard to know for sure, but you watch and listen from a distance and try to form an opinion. Mine would definitely be a favourable one.
Successful sides tend to be more friendly and open and obliging, when it comes to providing content for the media so, on that basis, I wish the Hurricanes all the best. But, again, I’m not their spokesman.
I know the Hurricanes play the Lions on Sunday morning (NZT). I’m not paid to write about the Lions, so I don’t follow them in any way or have any interest in their fortunes.
If they beat the Hurricanes in this semifinal, well done. If not, hard luck.
It’s the job of the Hurricanes’ coaches and players to find a way to win in Johannesburg and, the record the team have compiled in the three years Chris Boyd, John Plumtree, Conrad Smith, Dane Coles, TJ Perenara and Brad Shields have held leadership positions, would suggest they can.
Two finals and now a semifinal is an outcome most franchises would take in a heartbeat. The Hurricanes feel they coughed up the 2015 final to the Highlanders and winning the title last year must’ve been a relief. The motivation is different this time.
No-one doubts or questions the team’s ability. Whether they’re as desperate to win in 2017, as they were in the two seasons prior, we’ll find out in the next few days.