Wynne Gray is a Herald columnist

Rugby: Top teams' tense Super 15 final wait

Liam Squire of the Chiefs charges forward during the round 19 Super Rugby match. Photo / Getty Images
Liam Squire of the Chiefs charges forward during the round 19 Super Rugby match. Photo / Getty Images

Beware the prize of a week off in the Super rugby finals.

Finishing in the top two after round robin play has been a reward and a punishment for sides since the rules were amended in 2011.

Slogging through four months of tournament rugby this year gives the Waratahs and Crusaders home advantage and gate returns but is no guarantee they will advance to the tournament decider.

There have been falls from the favourites in all three campaigns since the rules were amended, which is an unwelcome thought for the Waratahs and Crusaders to brood over as they sit out this weekend's action.

However, their rosters are full of men with half-full attitudes who will take solace from the fact that each of the last three champions has survived the week's downtime.

In 2011, the Stormers fell over in the semifinal while the Reds survived and won the title.

The next year the Stormers qualified top but dipped out again, while on the other side of the draw the Chiefs won and went on to nail their first crown.

Last season, it was the Bulls' turn to buckle in the semifinals while the Chiefs, who had edged one better to be the top qualifier, then cemented that strong work to claim successive honours.

Both the Waratahs and Crusaders are delivering all the expected noises about getting battered men into better condition for the semifinals and using the extra time to nail down all the details they will need for their return to action next weekend.

It is a balancing act.

Some players fret if they are used from the bench or are given a week off during competition and that anxiety trickles into their play when they return.

Others like a week off where they can still train hard but know they have the weekend with their families which gives them a break from the mental drip-drip-drip grind of unrelenting games.

And then there is the fear of the unknown.

The Crusaders have qualified for every extended finals series while the Waratahs have made the cut for the first time this year.

The Crusaders have not won a title but have many players who've felt the heat of that cut-throat battle and know what it feels like to play sudden-death rugby.

Fear of failure and a squeeze on a team's ambition come into the equation.

In round-robin rugby, teams get repeat chances to try their methods but in the Super 15 finals there are no second chances.

The Crusaders have sharpened their content and delivery towards whomever they host in next week's semifinal.

And they will also have the luxury of getting men like Richie McCaw back into the selection equation.

The other semifinal host, the Waratahs, have been most impressive with their power pack and free-wheeling backs but inquiries will sprout about that style as their destiny approaches.

In the fortnight they have to consider that challenge, there will be questions about whether the Tahs should reduce their levels of expression to boost their chances of sudden-death success.

The wait is the interlude when doubts nibble at players who are not 100 per cent certain about their game, when coaches and players need to believe they are nervously ready rather than anxious.

Trading places
2011 Reds top qualifier and won the title, Stormers qualified second and lost semi.
2012 Stormers top qualifier and lost semi, Chiefs qualified second and won the title.
2013 Chiefs qualified top and won the title, Bulls qualified second and lost in semi.
2014 Waratahs qualified top, Crusaders second.

- NZ Herald

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