This season has seen a 71% home win rate in Super Rugby, higher than the 63% average rate between 1996-2010 and the 59% in the 3 seasons since the conference system was used.
Looking at the away games this year against non-conference teams – New Zealand sides won 7/20 games, Australian teams 5/20 and South African teams 3/20. Of those 15 combined wins, only 4 were against teams ranked higher on the table – Sharks at Crusaders, Highlanders at Sharks, Blues at Force and Force at Highlanders. That fits in with the 4 away upset wins last season and 3 in 2012.
The changes to the competition in 2011 saw a round of qualifying matches introduced before the traditional semi-final stage and the hosts have won 5/6 of them so far, by an average score of 27-14.
That 1 home qualifier loss saw the Sharks beat the Reds, however it is also true that while the South African side were placed in 6th and Reds in 3rd – they actually picked up 1 more competition point. Conference rules meant the Reds, as top ranked Australian side were put above the Crusaders, Bulls and Sharks that year.
Over a longer period it will be interesting to see what effect the conferences and this extra play-off round has the on semi-finals. Between 1996-2010, the home side won 26/30 semi-finals by an average score of 31-20 and 16 in a row from 2003 by an average score of 31-16. Since 2011, it has been 3/6 wins by 20-22.
Brumbies vs Chiefs
The Brumbies improved from 13th in 2011, to 7th in 2012 (missing out on the AUS conference and playoffs due to a final round home loss) to 3rd and losing finalists last season. However, unusually for a side on the up and with players committing their futures, there has been plenty of change at the top of the organisation.
Jake White departed for the Sharks, CEO Andrew Fagan resigned and ended up in the ARU, captain Ben Mowen announced he would be leaving for Montpellier and most recently Laurie Fisher’s move to Gloucester was confirmed.
They won 10 and drew 2 games last season, scoring 430 points and conceding 295. This year it has been 10 wins, with 412 scored and 378 allowed. The round 1 home loss against the Reds and round 6 defeat at Rebels (after leading 6-17 after 47 mins) will probably be looked back as games that cost them a chance at the conference, but even they had been won them – it may not have been enough to catch the high-scoring Tahs.
Brumbies have won 7/8 home games this season by an average score of 30-17 and kept opponents to 6 points or less 1st half in the last 5 games there. Of relevance for this match is that also have kept Chiefs to 6,9,9 and 3 points in the 1st half in last 4 meetings.
A strong start has been pretty common in Brumbies games in recent years and they have only trailed at halftime in 1/17 home matches since 2013. The HT/FT has landed in 9 of their last 10 home games.
A tactic of getting in front early and then squeezing out an opponent has proved successful for teams and is certainly a useful ability to have when going into knockout games. The Brumbies have taken some criticism in the past for kicking too much, but they have looked to attack more often this season and as Mowen pointed out after the Force win, they do have a skilful backline. They may also feel that due to injuries, they now have better bench options as squad players have seen more game-time this season than may have been expected.
They have won 7/8 previous home knockout games, with the exception being a point loss against Crusaders in 2000 final. They were big favourites going into the match against the Cheetahs last season at this stage, but were outscored 2 tries to 0 and ended up a missed conversion away from being taken into extra time.
Brumbies have won 8/11 home games against the Chiefs by an average score of 35-23. They have led at HT in 4 of the previous 5 games at all venues against this opposition (exception was a draw at HT) but been outscored 2nd half in 3/5 matches. Chiefs have scored 17 or more points 2nd half against the Brumbies in the last 4 meetings.
The hosts were outscored 2nd half in 10/19 matches last season and in 9/16 so far this campaign. That perhaps is to be expected with teams that are capable of building early leads and then defending.
The Brumbies have conceded 19/35 tries in the final quarter of matches, while the Chiefs have scored 18/44 in the last 20 minutes.
In last year’s final, Chiefs scored against Brumbies in the 63rd and 67th minute, in 2012 in the 68th and 78th minute and in 2011 the tries came in the 51st, 56th and 80th minute. This season, the Chiefs tries came in the 73rd and 78th minute.
One of the considerations for this match is how much emphasis should be put on the 41-23 result from April. That game was the first opportunity for the Brumbies to gain some revenge for losing the final in 2013, they were fresh – having been on the bye the week before and there was also Anzac Day to motivate the players. They wore a one-off shirt for the match and had an inspirational talk from former soldier Curtis McGrath, who is now training for the Rio Paralympics.
While Mowen has said that last year’s final remains a motivation, there may have been an emotional shift and now it’s the Chiefs looking for some payback. The visitors were also without Cruden and Latimer in that game, so will be putting out a better team this time.
Chiefs finished top in 2013, winning 12 game and scoring 458 points, conceding 364. This year it has been 8 wins,2 draws with 384 points scored and 378 allowed (same as Brumbies). Retaining a title for a 3rd year will have needed a different mental challenge to the other campaigns but the biggest factor this season has probably been injuries.
The visitors averaged 5 changes to the starting line up each round and a lack of continuity in the backline might explain the drop in points scored. There were 10 different centre pairing used in the 16 games, with the most used being Aki and Horrell 3 times. At halfback there were 4 different combos, with Kerr-Barlow & Cruden appearing most often with 7 appearances, while the back3 was changed 14 times.
The last few rounds have seen some much needed stability in selection and with Cruden back, it might be that for the first time this season the coaches are close to naming their strongest available side. As with other big games though, Rennie and the coaching staff are also happy to make a change and adapt to their opponent. In this case it is Sweeney at 15. He started at fullback in 7 of his 52 Chiefs games – but all of those were in 2007. Since then he has made 13 starts on the left wing, 12 at inside centre, 10 at outside centre and 9 on the right wing. Rennie has praised his communication, influence and ability to counterattack from the expected Brumbies kicks.
There have been some wobbles at the set piece and that will have been noted by the hosts, who can call upon a more reliable lineout (88% success compared to 81%). The absence of Moore does reduce that difference though and its also true the Brumbies scrum has the lowest success rate in the competition.
Having won 6 away matches in 2012 and 5 in 2013, there was a drop this season with just the 2 Chiefs away victories (at Crusaders and Blues) and 2 draws in South Africa. In the last couple of years they have only won 2/8 away games outside of New Zealand – against the Kings and Rebels. They have scored 9 points or less 1st half in 5/8 away matches this season.
In the Waikato Times, Dave Rennie was quoted this week saying: ”There is no doubt our guys, when they play the Kiwi sides, get up big time. They’ve got a lot of mates in the teams, there’s a lot of history and that sort of thing and while we certainly don’t disrespect the Aussie sides maybe we haven’t always had the same sort of physical edge”
Having identified that drop in intensity against Australian teams, would be a surprise for it to be a problem again – even if the visitors will need to switch mindset slightly, having played 3 New Zealand teams in the last 3 matches.
The Chiefs have showed an ability to step up an already mean defence in the finals and had a tackle success rate of 93%, 94%, 90% and 92% in the last 4 knockout matches.
There has been a card shown in 6/8 Brumbies home games and 6/8 Chiefs away games. Only 1 card has been given in the last 18 Super Rugby knock out games though, going back to 2010.
Referee Joubert showed cards in 5/13 matches this season, and in 4/9 Chiefs games & 3/9 Brumbies matches over the last few years. His 13 games average 21 penalties this season– with a low of 15 and high of 29. The last few rounds have seen 25, 29, 19 and 23 penalties.
That recent trend of awarding lots of penalties but no cards does have to be considered. If unchecked, the Chiefs will be more than happy to take out players beyond the ruck or hold on– something the Stormers asked Joubert to be wary of before they visited Hamilton in round 3. If the Brumbies have built a lead, they have proved willing to kill the ball until the referee starts carding them (Tahs at home would be a good example).
Chiefs have been officiated by Joubert 3 times this season – the 36-20 home win over Stormers and the 34-34 and 43-43 draws at the Bulls and Cheetahs. Without wanting to read too much into just 3 games, the Chiefs scored 5,5 and 6 tries, averaged 627m with the ball and conceded an average of 12 penalties. Brumbies have been refereed twice by Joubert this year – the 21-29 win at the Canes and the 44-23 defeat at the Bulls. The Australian conference winners conceded 10 and 13 penalties in those games and had Toomua, Mann-Rea carded against the Bulls.
Based on trends in the fixture and how both teams have performed this season, do like the basic strategy of backing Brumbies 1st half and then Chiefs 2nd half. Am going with the idea that Brumbies could lead early and then the Chiefs will have a decent period maybe around the 60 min mark, with the likes of Anscombe and Marshall being introduced.
With that in mind, the following are worth considering:
-Brumbies halftime at 1.73 (Landed in their last 7 home games, for opposition in 5/8 Chiefs away games and 4/5 matches between teams)
-Chiefs under 10.5 points in 1st half at 1.91 (occurred in last 4 games in fixture, 6/8 Chiefs away games and in 7/8 Brumbies home matches)
-Time of 1st Chiefs try = 2nd half or no try at 2.1 (last 4 meetings, time of 1st Chiefs try has been 73, 63, 68 and 51st minute)
Will also have a play on Brumbies HT / Chiefs FT at 9.0 and look to back Chiefs points and tries during halftime (unless they are leading).
Toomua scored a brace against Chiefs earlier in season and has scored 2,2 and 3 tries in home matches this season so buying his try minutes at 11 or just backing at 4.0 anytime scorer is worth some thought.
Brumbies: 15 Jesse Mogg, 14 Henry Speight, 13 Tevita Kuridrani, 12 Christian Lealiifano, 11 Robbie Coleman, 10 Matt Toomua, 9 Nic White, 8 Ben Mowen, 7 Jarrad Butler, 6 Scott Fardy, 5 Leon Power, 4 Sam Carter, 3 Ben Alexander, 2 Josh Mann-Rea, 1 Scott Sio
Replacements: 16 Ruaidhri Murphy, 17 Ruan Smith, 18 Allan Alaalatoa, 19 Fotu Auelua, 20 Tom McVerry, 21 Michael Dowsett, 22 Joe Tomane, 23 Pat McCabe
Chiefs: 15 Dwayne Sweeney, 14 Asaeli Tikoirotuma, 13 Tim Nanai-Williams, 12 Bundee Aki, 11 James Lowe, 10 Aaron Cruden (c), 9 Tawera Kerr-Barlow, 8 Liam Squire, 7 Tanerau Latimer, 6 Liam Messam, 5 Brodie Retallick, 4 Mike Fitzgerald, 3 Ben Tameifuna, 2 Mahroni Schwalger, 1 Jamie Mackintosh.
Replacements: 16 Nathan Harris, 17 Pauliasi Manu, 18 Nick Barrett, 19 Matt Symons, 20 Tevita Koloamatangi, 21 Augustine Pulu, 22 Gareth Anscombe, 23 Tom Marshall.
Sharks vs Highlanders
The Sharks reached the 2012 final but after winning away at the Reds and Stormers to reach that game, it was probably a match too far and they were well beaten 37-6 at the Chiefs. They followed that season with an 8th place finish and while they did score 40 tries, 20 of them came in 2 matches against the Rebels and Kings. A high injury count played a part in the disappointing season, as did a run of 5 losses mid-season.
The performance in the away tour and even when it occurs in the campaign can prove decisive for the SA teams. In 2013, after a heavy loss at the Chiefs, the Cheetahs picked up 3 away wins early – which set up the rest of their season. In contrast the Sharks made a good start from their run of home games but then lost 3 of their 4 trips.
There were also off the field issues rumbling in the background, that may have impacted on the Sharks’ 2013 season, with John Smit eventually announced as new CEO in July, Plumtree’s contract not renewed, Venter brought in as Director of Rugby and then later Jake White brought in from the Brumbies.
While White took over a Brumbies side in 2012 that had won just 4 games the season before, there wasn’t the same rebuilding job required at the Sharks. Bar Michalak and Ludik it is basically the same squad that reached the 2012 final but with greater experience now and arguably superior strength in depth.
There has been mention that the Sharks have peaked this year and that a 3rd place finish should be seen as a failure, however the nature of their fixtures meant that a drop off was expected at the end of the campaign, given they only had 1 home game in the last 7 matches. The case can be made that could have pushed for more bonus points in their early home matches, but on the other hand were it not for that Taute drop goal in round 14, they’d have finished 2nd. White’s plan to play Lambie 10 and Steyn 12 also only lasted 4 matches due to injury.
Sharks won 6/8 home matches this year by an average score of 27-18, which is pretty close to their 2013 average of 26-15. They have led at the break in 6/8 home matches and outscored teams 2nd half in 4/8.
Their biggest loss was against the Highlanders in round 9, when the visitors became only the 2nd team to score over 30 points at the Sharks since 2005. That result meant Highlanders had won 2 in a row in the fixture, having lost the previous 6 from 2006-2012.
As with the Brumbies vs Chiefs game, some thought has to be given to the fact that the teams met earlier in the season and there was a large margin win. That April match did come in the middle of the Highlanders best run of the season, when they won 5/6 matches including 3 of 4 against South African sides.
Fekitoa and Ben Smith both carried for over 100m and Sopoaga was 100% with his kicks at goal. The hosts were without Bismarck and Deysel who were late withdrawals for the match and had Swiel at 10 (off after 54 mins) so are a stronger outfit this time. That isn’t to detract from what was a great performance from the Highlanders though, more to point out there are plenty of factors that will need to go their way again for a repeat result.
This is the Highlanders first top 6 finish since 2006 and their post-season match since 2002 (the reached the semi-finals in 4/5 seasons from 1998-2002). Looking at their seasons under Jamie Joseph, there has seemed to be a trend of them tailing off around round 10.
In 2011, they won 7/9 matches and then 1/7. In 2012, it was 7/9 and then 2/7. 2013 was the horror campaign which stands apart from the rest – with losses in the first 8 games and then 3 wins in the 2nd half of the season. This year the slump occurred a bit later, with 7/11 wins and then 1/5 from round 12.
If you were to just take the last 3 games of those 4 seasons, it would be 2/12 wins by an average score of 20-34 and 6/12 having defeats by 17 or more points. Of those 12 games, 8 were away and significantly 6 were away to top 5 teams. That does add some context, as having consecutive trips to top teams at the end of the season is tough, especially if the away side may be out of the playoff race at that stage. However on the other hand, it might be that losing games at the end of the season (and by substantial margins) has become a habit.
This year the Highlanders have won 2/8 away matches by an average score of 29-21, with the wins being at the Sharks and 16-18 at the Canes in round 11. They have trailed at HT in 6 of the away games and been outscored 2nd half by at least 10 points ,in 4/8. Their final 2 matches were a 44-16 loss at the top placed Tahs and 34-8 at the Crusaders last weekend.
If they were to win the final, it would mean then that in 5 weeks they would have travelled to Tahs (1st), Crusaders (2nd), Sharks (3rd), Tahs (1st) and then finalist (Crusaders 2nd, Brumbies 4th or Chiefs 5th) – which is a ridiculous schedule. The 67.0 for them to win the final looks big, but based on those fixtures it is understandable.
Jake White has said he is looking for a repeat of the Stormers game this week - “I just think we need to copy and paste, it sounds obvious but it is there. We played and strangled them and when we got a turnover we scored from 60 yards out.”
Think there may be a slight ‘halo effect’ with the Highlanders this season and the opposite with the Sharks. Given the choice of backing a team that scores tries from deep or one that is happy to “strangle” a team – the neutral is going to opt for the former.
Will back Sharks -13 on the handicap, -31 at 9.0 (with the view that Highlanders are coming off 28 and 26 point losses) and the 2nd half handicap of -7.
The home side has won 10/12 games with Walsh in charge this season and he has handed out cards in 7/12 of those matches. Walsh has given a card in his last 7 matches and there has been a pretty consistent number of penalties a game, all season (average of 19). There has been 7 cards in the last 5 matches between the teams, with at least 1 shown in 7/8 Sharks home games this season and 3/8 Highlanders away matches.
He was in charge of 2 Highlanders away defeats this season – 44-16 at the Tahs and 30-12 at the Blues and over a longer period, they have lost 9/10 matches with Walsh, by an average score of 34-19. It is worth noting that 8 of those games were away and 9 involved them playing a side higher on the table than them. They also include the 25-22 home win over the Sharks from last year.
There have been 2 or more cards in 5/10 of those Highlanders matches. The Sharks have won 3/6 matches when officiated by Walsh, with the only home game being the 28-16 win over the Highlanders in 2012. Will back a Highlanders cards at 2.5 and 2 at 7.0
Sharks may well look to both target what has looked a shaky Highlanders lineout in recent weeks and attack from their own. Bismarck does find himself at the back of plenty of those Sharks lineout drives, but will go greedy and opt for Coetzee anytime scorer at 8.0 and 2 or more at 81.0
Sharks: 15 SP Marais, 14 S’bura Sithole, 13 JP Pietersen, 12 Paul Jordaan, 11 Lwazi Mvovo, 10 Francois Steyn, 9 Cobus Reinach, 8 Ryan Kankowski, 7 Willem Alberts, 6 Marcell Coetzee, 5 Stephan Lewies, 4 Anton Bresler, 3 Jannie du Plessis, 2 Bismarck du Plessis (capt), 1 Thomas du Toit.
Replacements: 16 Kyle Cooper, 17 Dale Chadwick, 18 Lourens Adriaanse, 19 Etienne Oosthuizen, 20 Jean Deysel, 21 Charl McLeod, 22 Pat Lambie, 23 Tonderai Chavhanga.
Highlanders: 15 Ben Smith, 14 Richard Buckman , 13 Malakai Fekitoa, 12 Phil Burleigh, 11 Patrick Osborne, 10 Lima Sopoaga, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Nasi Manu, 7 Shane Christie, 6 Elliot Dixon, 5 Joe Wheeler, 4 Jarrad Hoeata, 3 Chris King, 2 Ged Robinson, 1 Kane Hames.
Replacements: 16 Liam Coltman, 17 Matias Diaz, 18 JP Koen, 19 Josh Bekhuis, 20 Tom Franklin, 21 Fumiaki Tanaka, 22 Trent Renata, 23 Gareth Evans