Playoff Rugby needs playoff preparation.
The Hurricanes ended the Chiefs’ oily rag campaign on Friday. They did so on their home track where they have lost just once in the last 23 games. A week before, the Chiefs had the chance to put 23 points on the Canes and earn home advantage for themselves, a mission that looked on track when they piled on 21 of those points in a rampant first half display that had the Chiefs fans delighted and the Canes coaches despairing.
The Chiefs did win the game but not by enough. Some pundits suggested they had lost the battle [for home advantage] to win the war the following week. That proved a nonsense. The Chiefs may have been bound by agreements with New Zealand Rugby to rest Damian McKenzie, and took the opportunity to take a cautious approach to the reinstatement of Sam Cane and the selection of Charlie Ngatai, but those decisions were costly in the extreme and played directly into the hands of the Hurricanes.
Playoff rugby needs playoff preparation and the Hurricanes got all of that and more by throwing their best into the last regular season game. That loss, and the lessons learned by their key playmakers from it, gave them all the momentum required. Home advantage took care of the rest. How much better would Damian McKenzie have been for a run a week earlier against the Hurricanes defence? Could Sam Cane have used a few extra minutes to get the body honed for the contact to come? The answers to those questions: Much, and definitely.
The Chiefs ran for 708 metres on Friday night, and forced 42 missed tackles. The Canes ran for 488 metres and forced 18 missed tackles. It is almost unfathomable, given those numbers, that the Hurricanes had the game sewn up well before the full time whistle. Well, unfathomable until you realise their playmakers had the perfect dress rehearsal a week earlier, while the Chiefs’ pivot sat in the dugout itching to be amongst it.
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The Crusaders Are Vampires.
No other team is capable of sucking the blood out of the opposition quite like the Crusaders. There are but three remaining ways to defeat them: silver bullet, sunlight, wooden stake through the heart.
If ever two minutes could sum up a season, it would have to be the two that brought to a close the third quarter of the Crusaders-Sharks quarterfinal at AMI Stadium. Leading 23-10 but having not quite managed to land a killer blow on the visitors, the Crusaders found themselves on the defensive as the Sharks sent wave after wave of prime pick and pop at them, inside their own 22.
It was an old-fashioned pulverising play that may have worked on other teams, but not the Red Velvet Sledgehammer. The Crusaders tackled everything that came their way and, after 20-odd phases, turned the ball over and kicked the Sharks back into their own territory, from which they would barely emerge again.
The Crusaders were happy to give the Sharks width all night – the fool’s gold as it is known – knowing that if they could convince them that there was space there, they would not have to take as many body shots through the middle. The Sharks fell for that far too often, and also dropped the ball 20 times, which know team can do against the Crusaders.
And then they just accumulate points on you and with your dying breath, as every last drop of blood is drained from your carcass, you look up and realise they have but 40 points on you and you have no idea how it happened.
The Lions are still the real deal.
The admirable thing about the Lions is that they just know what they are and they rarely do anything differently. That is why they have been in the grand final the last two years and that is why they will be in the grand final again this year. The Jaguares were kidding themselves kicking early penalties. The Lions go up in sevens.
They won the game on Sunday morning with plenty to spare. They won the game with Malcolm Marx – the hooker, for god’s sake – posting the most running metres for the Lions. That should not be possible, but somehow the Lions do stuff like this and it works. They won the game with Franco Mostert putting up 23 tackles, because that’s what Franco does pretty much every week.
The Lions didn’t actually have to fire too many shots and yet they still put 40 points on the Jaguares, while losing the territory and possession stats and being forced to make almost twice as many tackles. Remind you of any other team?
Home advantage is king
Every privately schooled baby boomer with a background in commercial banking descended on Allianz Stadium in Sydney to watch the Waratahs somehow win a game of rugby they really shouldn’t have against a Highlanders team that really should have but didn’t.
I’ll throw this out there: there is no way that comeback happens at Forsyth Barr Stadium, which is where the game would have been played if games won counted for more than beating the Sunwolves twice. Anyway, now is not the time to complain about a system that absolutely no one likes. The point is this: home advantage is a wonderful thing and the Waratahs know it.
Home advantage is about the crowd arcing up at perceived injustices, and hometown broadcasters repeating incidental acts of nothing a million times on the big screen, and the ball bouncing in ways you know it will, and being able to go back to Coogee for a recovery swim the next day. It’s knowing when you have a 3 on 1 overlap because you know what that picture looks like on your home deck, and it’s the energy of the crowd.
If there was a crowd.
At any of the games.
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