The Vodacom Bulls and The Sharks face tough challenges in Australasia on Saturday in the Vodacom Super Rugby Qualifiers.
The team from Pretoria, who have won the competition three times, take on the seven-time champion Crusaders in Christchurch, after which the Durbanites take on the defending champion Reds in Brisbane.
On face value, the Vodacom Bulls have the more difficult match of the two – the Crusaders are almost impossible to beat in Christchurch (they have never lost a playoff at home), but they are hosting the one team that has been responsible for half of their defeats in playoffs.
The Sharks will have fond memories of Brisbane though. Not only is that where they recorded their biggest ever win over the Reds, but it’s also where they won the 1996 semi-final against the Queenslanders.
As Conference champions in South Africa and New Zealand and having finished in the top two positions on the log, the DHL Stormers and Chiefs have a bye this week.
Crusaders v Vodacom Bulls
Can any team beat the Crusaders in a Vodacom Super Rugby knock-out match in Christchurch? History says no, but the Vodacom Bulls will say nothing is impossible.
In their only previous playoff in Christchurch, the Crusaders won easily – that was in 2006 when the Crusaders won by 35-15 and went on to win the title the next week against the Hurricanes.
And while the Vodacom Bulls turned the tables in 2007, 2009 and 2010, all three those games were played in Gauteng (two at Loftus Versfeld and one at the Orlando Stadium in Soweto), which meant the Crusaders had to travel across numerous time zones to play in the semi-final.
This week the travel factor will count against the Vodacom Bulls, but they have arrived in New Zealand confident of causing what would amount to a big upset.
Frans Ludeke, coach of the Vodacom Bulls who was also at the helm when they won the title in 2009 and 2010, said that there is very little to choose between the teams in action this weekend.
“There isn’t one team that has an edge on another and it will all come down to which team handles the pressure the best,” said Ludeke.
“This is finals rugby and we know how to handle the pressure. We are playing away but we know this is a once-off game and we know what we have to do.
“We know this is the most important game of our season, and we have to have the belief. We have made one or two small adjustments to our game, but we are confident going into Saturday’s game.”
Earlier this season, the Vodacom Bulls lost both their tour matches in New Zealand – in Dunedin against the Highlanders and in Hamilton against the Chiefs, eventual Conference winners in that country. And even though they have not beaten the Crusaders away from home since Northern Transvaal did so in the days before we had South African franchises in 1996, they are confident of doing well.
“We took a lot of positives out of our tour here, even though we lost the games in New Zealand,” said Ludeke.
“We were in with a chance of victory in both games and we want to make sure we have a chance this weekend. It is a vital game for us and it will come down to how we handle it.”
This is the fifth time these two teams will face each other in the playoffs since 2006 – all of them in semi-finals. In fact, since that year, when the Super 12 was expanded to the Super 14, the Crusaders and Vodacom Bulls have won all but one of the competitions.
Crusaders: Israel Dagg, Adam Whitelock, Robbie Fruean, Ryan Crotty, Zac Guildford, Dan Carter, Andy Ellis, Richie McCaw (captain), Matt Todd, George Whitelock, Sam Whitelock, Luke Romano, Owen Franks, Corey Flynn, Wyatt Crockett. Replacements: Quentin MacDonald, Ben Franks, Tom Donnelly, Luke Whitelock, Willi Heinz, Tom Taylor, Sean Maitland.
Vodacom Bulls: Zane Kirchner, Akona Ndungane, JJ Engelbrecht, Wynand Olivier, Bjorn Basson, Mornè Steyn, Francois Hougaard, Pierre Spies (captain), Dewald Potgieter, Jacques Potgieter, Juandrè Kruger, Flip van der Merwe, Werner Kruger, Chiliboy Ralepelle, Dean Greyling. Replacements: Willie Wepener, Frik Kirsten, Wilhelm Steenkamp, Deon Stegmann, Jano Vermaak, Louis Fouchè, Francois Venter.
Vodacom Bulls in Super Rugby playoffs:
Won: 6 (3 finals, 3 semi-finals)
Lost: 3 (all semi-finals)
Crusaders in Super Rugby playoffs:
Won: 18 (7 finals)
Lost: 6 (3 finals and 3 semi-finals)
Crusaders v Vodacom Bulls in playoffs:
20 May 2006: Crusaders won 35-15 in Christchurch (semi-final)
12 May 2007: Vodacom Bulls won 27-12 in Pretoria (semi-final)
23 May 2009: Vodacom Bulls won 36-23 in Pretoria (semi-final)
22 May 2010: Vodacom Bulls won 39-24 in Soweto (semi-final)
Vodacom Bulls in 2012:
R1: beat The Sharks 18-13 (Pretoria)
R2: beat Toyota Cheetahs 51-19 (Bloemfontein)
R3: lost to Blues 23-29 (Pretoria)
R5: beat Reds 61-8 (Pretoria)
R6: lost to DHL Stormers 17-20 (Cape Town)
R7: beat Crusaders 32-30 (Pretoria)
R8: beat MTN Lions 32-18 (Johannesburg)
R9: beat Brumbies 36-34 (Pretoria)
R11: beat Rebels 41-35 (Melbourne)
R12: beat Waratahs 27-24 (Sydney)
R13: lost to Highlanders 11-16 (Dunedin)
R14: lost to Chiefs 22-28 (Hamilton)
R15: lost to DHL Stormers 14-19 (Pretoria)
R16: beat Toyota Cheetahs 40-24 (Pretoria)
R17: lost to The Sharks 10-32 (Durban)
R18: beat MTN Lions 37-20 (Pretoria)
Crusaders in 2012:
R1: beat Blues 19-18 (Auckland)
R2: lost to Highlanders 24-27 (Dunedin)
R3: lost to Chiefs 19-24 (Napier)
R5: beat Toyota Cheetahs 28-21 (Christchurch)
R6: beat MTN Lions 23-13 (Johannesburg)
R7: lost to Vodacom Bulls 30-32 (Pretoria)
R8: beat DHL Stormers 31-24 (Christchurch)
R9: beat Hurricanes 42-14 (Wellington)
R10: beat Waratahs 37-33 (Sydney)
R11: beat Reds 15-11 (Christchurch)
R12: lost to Rebels 19-28 (Melbourne)
R13: beat Blues 59-12 (Christchurch)
R15: beat Highlanders 51-18 (Christchurch)
R16: lost to Hurricanes 22-23 (Christchurch)
R17: beat Chiefs 28-21 (Hamilton)
R18: beat Force 38-24 (Christchurch)
Crusaders v Vodacom Bulls
Date: 21 July
SA Time: 09:35
Venue: AMI Stadium, Christchurch
Referee: Jaco Peyper (South Africa)
Assistant referees: Keith Brown (New Zealand), Glen Jackson (New Zealand)
Television match official: Garratt Williamson (New Zealand)
Reds v The Sharks
The Sharks will be looking back at 1996 when they face the Vodacom Super Rugby defending champion Reds in Brisbane on Saturday in the second Qualifier for 2012.
Sixteen years ago, Natal (as The Sharks were known back in the day) caused a minor upset when they beat Queensland in their Super 12 semi-final in Brisbane after the home team had topped the log and the Durbanites managed to sneak into the top four.
Since then, the Sharks have played in nine more playoffs (including three finals), but they’ve only won a total of three of these matches (all of them in semi-finals). Last year they were faced with a similar task, but came up short against the Crusaders in Christchurch.
And even though the smart money is on the home team to win, The Sharks know they can beat the Reds at Suncorp Stadium.
According to Sharks assistant coach Grant Bashford, they will pay the Reds the necessary respect on Saturday, but they are excited about a massive challenge that lied ahead.
“The Reds are the defending champions that know how to win this tournament,” said Bashford. “They will have huge support at home and we will certainly have our hands full, but it’s a challenge the boys are looking forward to.
“We played them in Durban in the pool stages and had the upper hand in that game (the Sharks won 27-22 in March), so we have the belief that we can do it, it’s just about getting our act together and getting it right on the day.
“A lot of our key players like Willem Alberts, Beast Mtawarira and Ryan Kankowski have all come back from injury and are all playing well, so we’re certainly in a better position now than we were earlier in the tournament.
“We know that if we play well, we can beat any side in the tournament and I think we showed that in our games against the Stormers and Bulls. The real trick for us is replicating those kinds of performances.
“We have the players to do it, it’s just getting ourselves organised and getting ready for the game. And if we get everything right and play the way we know we can play, we have a very good chance of continuing in this tournament.”
In the last three seasons, the Reds have only lost four of their 25 games at Suncorp Stadium, which points to the importance of home ground advantage.
Although they needed the Brumbies to stumble against the Blues last weekend to sneak into the Finals Series as Australian Conference champions, the team from Queensland have really come of age in the last few seasons and will be a formidable opponent on Saturday.
Reds: Luke Morahan, Dom Shipperley, Anthony Faingaa, Mike Harris, Digby Ioane, Ben Lucas, Will Genia (capt), Scott Higginbotham, Liam Gill, Jake Schatz, Adam Wallace-Harrison, Rob Simmons, James Slipper, Saia Faingaa, Greg Holmes. Replacements: James Hanson, Ben Daley, Radike Samo, Beau Robinson, Jarrad Butler, Nick Frisby, Ben Tapuai.
The Sharks: Louis Ludik, JP Pietersen, Paul Jordaan, Tim Whitehead, Lwazi Mvovo, Frederic Michalak, Charl McLeod; Ryan Kankowski, Marcell Coetzee, Keegan Daniel (captain), Anton Bresler, Willem Alberts, Jannie du Plessis, Bismarck du Plessis, Beast Mtawarira. Replacements: Craig Burden, Wiehahn Herbst, Steven Sykes, Jacques Botes, Cobus Reinach, Meyer Bosman, Odwa Ndungane.
The Sharks in Super Rugby playoffs:
Won: 3 (all semi-finals)
Lost: 7 (3 finals, 3 semi-finals and 1 qualifier)
Reds in Super Rugby playoffs:
Won: 2 (1 final, 1 semi-final)
Lost: 3 (all semi-finals)
Reds v The Sharks in playoffs:
18 May 1996: The Sharks (Natal) won 43-25 in Brisbane (semi-final)
The Sharks in 2012:
R1: lost to Vodacom Bulls 13-18 (Pretoria)
R2: lost to DHL Stormers 12-15 (Cape Town)
R3: beat MTN Lions 32-20 (Durban)
R4: beat Reds 27-22 (Durban)
R5: lost to Waratahs 30-34 (Sydney)
R6: beat Brumbies 29-26 (Canberra)
R7: lost to Hurricanes 18-42 (Wellington)
R8: beat Blues 29-23 (Auckland)
R9: lost to Chiefs 12-18 (Durban)
R11: beat Highlanders 28-16 (Durban)
R12: beat Force 53-11 (Durban)
R13: beat Toyota Cheetahs 34-20 (Bloemfontein)
R14: beat DHL Stormers 25-20 (Durban)
R15: lost to MTN Lions 28-38 (Johannesburg)
R17: beat Vodacom Bulls 32-10 (Durban)
R18: beat Toyota Cheetahs 34-15 (Durban)
Reds in 2012:
R1: beat Waratahs 25-21 (Sydney)
R2: beat Force 35-20 (Brisbane)
R3: beat Rebels 11-6 (Brisbane)
R4: lost to The Sharks 22-27 (Durban)
R5: lost to Vodacom Bulls 8-61 (Pretoria)
R6: lost to Force 19-45 (Perth)
R7: beat Brumbies 20-13 (Brisbane)
R9: lost to DHL Stormers 13-23 (Brisbane)
R10: beat Blues 23-11 (Auckland)
R11: lost to Crusaders 11-15 (Christchurch)
R12: beat Chiefs 42-27 (Brisbane)
R13: beat MTN Lions 34-20 (Brisbane)
R14: beat Brumbies 13-12 (Canberra)
R16: beat Rebels 32-17 (Melbourne)
R17: beat Highlanders 19-13 (Brisbane)
R18: beat Waratahs 32-16 (Brisbane)
Reds v The Sharks
Date: 21 July
SA Time: 11:40
Venue: Suncorp Stadium, Brisbane
Referee: Jonathan Kaplan (South Africa)
Assistant referees: Craig Joubert (South Africa), James Leckie (Australia)
Television match officials: Matt Goddard (Australia)