Gregor Paul

Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

Rugby: Road to the final begins

Hika Elliot and the rest of the Chiefs tight five will need to find another gear to maintain dominance during Super Rugby's play-offs. Photo / Getty Images
Hika Elliot and the rest of the Chiefs tight five will need to find another gear to maintain dominance during Super Rugby's play-offs. Photo / Getty Images

It's crunch time in Super Rugby. Gregor Paul casts an analytical eye over the contenders for the 2012 championship.

Chiefs

Finished: Most likely second as they need the Stormers to lose to the Rebels in Cape Town overnight.

Next Game: Will play the highest ranked qualifier from the preliminary play-off round.

Strengths: Have a week off and home advantage - the latter being critical, as only nine times has the away side won a knockout game. The Chiefs have a game plan well suited to the play-offs in that defensive stability is at the core, bolstered by strong execution of the basics.

They can play territory, soak up pressure and then strike through Aaron Cruden and Sonny Bill Williams. If they can speed the tempo then they have the right combination and depth of loose forwards to control possession and the game.

Weaknesses: Parts of their game cracked against the Crusaders and while they fixed the lineout against the Hurricanes, some of their players again felt the intensity of the occasion and let errors creep in. This is a largely inexperienced side with limited collective experience of knockout rugby.

Big Questions: Can their tight five find another gear and maintain the set piece and breakdown dominance they have enjoyed most of the season? Can Cruden kick and navigate as well as he can run and pass? How much has their confidence been rocked by two consecutive defeats?

Key Player: Tawera Kerr-Barlow has been inspirational and enormously influential in the past few weeks.

Crusaders

Finished: Fourth.

Next Game: Will play, in Christchurch, the team that finishes fifth - most likely to be either Bulls or Sharks.

If they win that, will depend on outcome of other preliminary play-off; if sixth beats third, Crusaders will play the team that finished second overall.

If the third-placed team beats sixth, Crusaders will play the team that finished top in the round-robin.

Strengths: Huge collective and individual experience and a good track record in play-offs. Of the nine knockout games won away from home, five have been by the Crusaders.

Have world-class, experienced players in key positions, a powerful scrum and gamebreakers in Robbie Fruean and Israel Dagg.

Weaknesses: Have been inconsistent and prone to mental lapses.

Big Questions: Can they win back-to-back games away from home as they will have to do to be crowned champions?

Can Dagg come good and deliver some magic?

Key Player: Kieran Read is the world's best No 8 and drives the Crusaders over the gain line, links the play, inspires those around him and crunches on defence.

Stormers

Finished: First - most likely as it's hard to see them losing to the Rebels.

Next Game: Will play the lowest ranked qualifier from the preliminary play-off round.

Strengths: Best defensive side in the competition and their low risk rugby is ideal for the play-offs.

Weaknesses: Have been unable to create much all year and lack vision and creativity with ball in hand.

Have never won a play-off game outside of South Africa.

Big Questions: Can they be more effective on attack? Can they win away from home if need be?

Key Player: Peter Grant is handy but limited - can he find another level in the next two weeks?

Brumbies

Finished: Third; fifth or sixth if the Bulls or Sharks lose overnight; or seventh if the Reds take five points from their game against the Waratahs.

Next Game: Will play the team that finishes sixth in Canberra - which will be either the Bulls, Sharks or Hurricanes, or will play the Reds if they finish sixth.

Strengths: A bit like the Hurricanes, the Brumbies have used the ball superbly this year, finding space out wide and finishing expertly.

Weaknesses: Lack experience and proven big game performers. Their scrum may prove vulnerable.

Big Questions: Is their elevated position due largely to the overall lack of strength in Australian conference? Can their scrum and general physicality hold up against the best teams? They didn't play the Crusaders or Stormers and lost to the Bulls, Chiefs and Sharks.

Key Player: Stephen Moore is a dynamic and experienced hooker who leads by example.

Bulls

Finished: Fifth, sixth, seventh or eighth depending on overnight results. A healthy bonus point win against the Lions should secure fifth.

Next Game: Will play either Crusaders or Brumbies if they make it through. The former if they are fifth, the latter if they are sixth.

Strengths: A huge pack and a desire to be relentlessly physical and in Morne Steyn they have a kicking machine who can convert pressure into points.

Weaknesses: Never the same team when they have to travel and were easily beaten by Sharks last week, suggesting they are low on energy and losing momentum.

Big Questions: Can they surprise anyone tactically? Can they make their style of rugby work outside Pretoria?

Key Player: Francois Hougaard is a livewire halfback who can scamper into holes, score out of nothing and bring his team back to life.

Sharks

Finished: Fifth, sixth, seventh or eighth depending on overnight results. A bonus point win against the Cheetahs and they are safe.

Next Game: Will play either Crusaders or Brumbies if they make it through. The former if they are fifth, the latter if they are sixth.

Strengths: Have built momentum at the right stage and grown in confidence. Enjoyed a decent trip to Australasia earlier in the year where they beat the Brumbies and Blues and should have taken the Waratahs. Will believe they can win away.

Weaknesses: Don't have the same ferocity upfront as the other two African sides and their willingness to play open rugby plays into the hands of the two remaining New Zealand sides.

Key Player: Frans Steyn has returned from France eager to prove himself again and his ability to land long range goal kicks could be critical.

Hurricanes

Finished: Sixth, seventh or eighth depending on results - needed one of Bulls or Sharks to lose.

Next Game: Will play either Crusaders or Brumbies if they make it through. The former if they are fifth, the latter if they are sixth.

Strengths: They know how to stay in touch with more physical, set-piece savvy opponents because of their incredible ability to use the ball - to create and exploit holes and finish expertly. They almost average four tries per game and somehow - as they showed with late wins against the Chiefs and Crusaders - know how to dig in and conjure magical points when they need them.

Weaknesses: Their scrum is vulnerable and their high risk game creates space for the other team.

Key Player: Probably two men that will make the difference if they make it through: Conrad Smith for his inspirational defence and support runs and Andre Taylor - the man with the Midas attacking touch.

Reds

Finished: Third if they take five points against Waratahs, or will miss out altogether if the Sharks and Bulls win overnight.

Next Game: Will play either Crusaders or Brumbies if they make it through. The former if they are fifth, the latter if they are sixth.

Strengths: Hitting for at the right time and have the incentive of being defending champions.

Weaknesses: Don't have that same tenacity or killer punch they had in 2011 and lack something without James Horwill.

Key Player: Quade Cooper has been edging his way back into form after his long injury break.

- Herald on Sunday

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