Wynne Gray

Wynne Gray is a Herald columnist

Rugby: Mentality gives the visitors vital edge

Dan Carter. Photo / Geoff Sloan
Dan Carter. Photo / Geoff Sloan

Finals footy mentality is a precious ingredient the Crusaders carry into Friday's duel with the Chiefs in Hamilton.

No team can match their haul of seven trophies and three runner-up titles since the Super series began, though their last triumph was in 2008.

A year later the Chiefs went to the last dance for the only time in their history and were belted all over Loftus Versfeld by the Bulls.

That side brought their blinkered aggression to Christchurch at the weekend but lost out to the Crusaders' controlled fury 28-13 as Daniel Carter kicked seven out of nine chances the visitors' indiscipline offered.

The Crusaders dominated the key statistics - turnovers, penalties conceded, tackles - while the Emperor of Addington, Richie McCaw, led his side with an imperious performance.

"Yeah, he's a bloody good player," Chiefs coach Dave Rennie chuckled, without needing to add more.

McCaw shifted to No8 because Kieran Read was injured and if anything that improved his impact. He carried the ball with astonishing frequency, led the defensive line and still had time to raid the rucks for turnovers.

The Crusaders got up in the Bulls' eyeline and rarely relented. They played on the advantage line on attack and defence, driving themselves to dent the Bulls' resistance.

They were so intense that Morne Steyn looked as if he would retreat to the in-goal area to find space for his stilted tactical kicking game.

Just as the Crusaders shut down the Bulls, the Sharks followed with an emphatic 30-17 triumph against the Reds, who had qualified sixth on points but gained a home quarter-final because of the conference system. The Sharks meet the Stormers on Sunday.

All New Zealand eyes will be on Waikato Stadium, with the nation's best two sides set for their final duel. The ledger is one-all this year, the Chiefs victorious 24-19 in Napier and the Crusaders overturning that result with their win in Hamilton.

The Chiefs have regained prop Ben Afeaki from the casualty ward but are unsure about Kane Thompson, while Crusaders No8 Kieran Read is not expected to play.

"We've got a little bit of info on the Crusaders after playing them a couple of weeks ago," Rennie said. "We anticipated the Crusaders would be our opponents but we did a fair bit of work on the Reds as well."

While the Chiefs were shut out of the teams' last match, they never gave in and would need that same grit for this week's showdown with the Crusaders, Rennie said.

They had choked the Bulls and left them with little room to manouevre. They played finals footy at the right end of the field and Carter kept adding regularly to the scoreline.

They understood the rhythm of finals rugby, Rennie said. It was a case of not how but how many, applying pressure and turning that into points.

"They have a lot of players with finals experience, a lot of All Blacks who have been at World Cup level, and that is a strength of theirs but not something we are concerning ourselves with."

There was nothing new about the Crusaders, they were just really accurate in many key areas.

"They will challenge the ball, they defend well, have great line speed, make lots of dominant tackles, create turnovers from that and kick for territory. Those are the things we will have to deal with and we need to get our setpiece and game going, defend well and slow their ball down with dominant tackles."

Settling on the outside backs and loose forward setup will be the Chiefs' main selection decisions.

- NZ Herald

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