Rugby: Battle-hardened Chiefs facing underdone Stormers?

By Kris Shannon

Aaron Cruden's playmaking abilities could be among the keys to the Chiefs winning a third Super Rugby crown. Picture / Getty Images
Aaron Cruden's playmaking abilities could be among the keys to the Chiefs winning a third Super Rugby crown. Picture / Getty Images

The reason the Chiefs will begin the playoffs in Cape Town is clear: an unbalanced system that rewarded the Stormers for repeatedly playing inferior opposition.

What is far less certain ahead of Sunday morning's quarter-final is which side will benefit from the disparity in their respective schedules.

Will the Chiefs - battle-hardened after coming agonisingly close to winning the Kiwi conference - be able to utilise those high-intensity repetitions in a knockout environment?

Or will the Stormers - having cruised through the round robin to triumph in the competition's weakest conference - be well-rested and make the most of their home advantage?

One thing is for sure, Super Rugby's much-maligned format means the teams will line up at opposite ends of Newlands having taken incredibly diverse routes to the post-season.

The Chiefs have enjoyed eight fixtures against their fellow playoff sides, winning five and losing three. The Stormers, meanwhile, have played only three such games, beating the Brumbies and losing to the Sharks and the Lions.

When assessing all 18 sides for the strength of their schedules, the Chiefs sit sixth overall, with their opponents this season owning an average of 7.32 wins. The Stormers, on the other hand, are last, having come up against teams boasting an average of 5.64 victories.

The visitors certainly seem stronger for all their tests while the hosts have the appearance of being underdone. But looks can be deceiving, especially since no Kiwi side have fixed their sights on the Stormers this season.

"Hopefully it will be an advantage - I guess we'll find out," Aaron Cruden said of the Chiefs' challenging preparation. "I've seen their highlights but I haven't seen too much of [the Stormers].

"Over the next few days we'll get out heads zoned into their tendencies and where we think we can expose them."

While Stormers coach Robbie Fleck will be doing his utmost to prevent that, he did concede his charges has suffered from the absence of Kiwi opposition on their schedule. Rather than being grateful to a format that eventually produced a home quarter-final, Fleck described it as "frustrating".

"Without playing some of the Kiwi sides you tend to lose out," he told Radio Sport. "Certainly the Kiwi sides have shown they're the best in the competition...and you want to match yourself against the best throughout the year.

"It's pretty evident the intensity that the Kiwi sides are playing at, and we will only really know post-game whether we can match it."

The Stormers will hope the home fans and weather conditions help with that task, as persistent rain in Cape Town this week looks set to deliver a wet ball that may hinder the Chiefs' high-powered attack.

Cruden has excelled in marshalling that facet all season, although neither he nor his fellow backs could muster the output needed to edge the Highlanders and seal top spot. And while they would have much rather spent this week preparing in Hamilton, Cruden provided some perspective for the challenge still facing the Chiefs.

"Obviously we're making it a bit tough on ourselves having to travel," he said. "But it's really exciting. There are 10 teams who have finished up for the season and we're lucky enough that we're still in with a chance."

- NZ Herald

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