Super Rugby playoffs loom
Two Super Rugby title favourites were forced to withstand fightbacks before finally achieving their wins.
WELLINGTON - Two of the Super Rugby title favourites revealed the pressure of the looming playoffs by lurching to victories over lower-ranked sides they should have destroyed in the final round of matches on Saturday.
The Stormers and Canterbury Crusaders struggled to keep their feet on the throats of the Melbourne Rebels and Western Force. Both were forced to withstand second-half fightbacks before finally achieving their wins.
The Stormers' victory and Waikato Chiefs loss to the Wellington Hurricanes ensured they topped the table, and while they failed to excite the crowds -- managing just two bonus points all season -- they showed how to win games by taking their opportunities and stifling their opposition.
"In playoffs it's about winning and playing the percentages and for the entire season it has always been about winning for us," Stormers coach Allister Coetzee said. "We are comfortable with the way we play and won't make changes now.
"You don't need bonus points in the semi-finals."
The Stormers and Chiefs both have a bye in the first round of playoffs next week, with the New Zealand side suffering a case of the yips in their final two weeks. They lost a match of test intensity to the Crusaders in the penultimate round before succumbing to the Hurricanes on Friday.
Chiefs coach Dave Rennie managed to at least crack a smile at the post-match media conference in Wellington, but he was frustrated at the way his side had finished after leading the competition for much of the season.
The Chiefs would need to work on their option-taking in attack after blowing "six or seven" potential tries against the Hurricanes and try to be less predictable when they did have the ball, Rennie said.
"We have got to be sharp in that area and (we) have a couple of weeks to work it out. We're not going to throw everything out, but we could have been a lot better and didn't quite have the edge.
"We have got a couple of weeks to sort something out."
REDS SNEAK IN
The champion Queensland Reds, on the outer before the final games began after a stuttering start to their season, did exactly what they needed by securing a bonus-point win over the New South Wales Waratahs after the Auckland Blues had done them a huge favour with a 30-16 win over the ACT Brumbies.
"Since round four of the competition we've been fighting to stay in finals contention so I'm really proud," coach Ewen McKenzie said. "We're in the finals now (and)...it's a different scenario. We'll go week to week and get that right."
The Reds, who won the Australian conference, now host the Sharks, with coach John Plumtree happy to have missed facing the Crusaders for the second successive year.
"We went there (to the Crusaders) last year, so I was hoping for another destination," Plumtree said in a reference to their 36-8 loss last year.
"Wherever we go at this stage of the competition, there'll be a lot of pressure on the home team as well.
Everyone says you can't win on the road, but we're going to prove everyone wrong."
Seven-time champions Crusaders host the three-times winner Bulls, with the Christchurch-based side needing to hammer home their advantage after they fell off in the second half against the Force when they had run up a 32-3 lead.
The Crusaders have shown glimpses of the unstoppable force they can be with 50-point thrashings of the Auckland Blues and Otago Highlanders on successive weeks and will need to ensure they match that intensity and execution level against the Bulls.
"What happened during the season is now irrelevant, it's a once-off game," said Bulls coach Frans Ludeke.
"Next week is a knockout, anything can happen and we're positive. Knockout games are all about pressure and taking your opportunities and we know how to do that, we're very experienced in those situations."