SYDNEY — Canterbury Crusaders welcome back Richie McCaw for the business end of the Super Rugby season in the first of two playoff matches this weekend that could bring an end to Australia’s involvement in the competition.
The highly-experienced All Blacks captain starts on the bench in Christchurch, but will need to be more than just an inspiring presence for the seven-times champions in Saturday’s crunch rematch of the 2011 final.
The Reds won that Brisbane final and will travel across the Tasman sea with plenty of optimism as they look to become the first Super Rugby side to sweep all five New Zealand teams in one season.
While the Crusaders go into the playoffs as the competition’s form team on the back of five straight wins, Australian conference winners ACT Brumbies stumbled into the knockout stage with a defeat at the Western Force.
Jake White’s team host South Africa’s surprise package, the Cheetahs, in their first post-season match since 2004 on Sunday, with the Bloemfontein-based outfit well rested for their first appearance in the playoffs after last weekend’s bye.
Defeat for the Reds would bring an end to Ewen McKenzie’s time in charge of the team before he takes up the reins as Wallabies coach and he has been forced to make a raft of changes to his backline because of injury.
The Reds finished the regular season with a lacklustre 14-12 win over the New South Wales Waratahs and McKenzie is banking on the return of captain James Horwill and scrumhalf Will Genia after minor injuries to reignite his side.
“There is always going to be some damage at this time of the year and while it’s disappointing to be without a few guys, we are getting the experience of James and Will back,” he said.
“Their influence can’t be understated and you need world class players and strong leaders if you are going to win these games on the big stage.”
After a poor start to the season, the Crusaders have really hit their straps since the international break, particularly in their 43-15 humbling of the defending champion Waikato Chiefs in Christchurch two weeks ago.
It is, however, five years since they last won the competition and even if coach Todd Blackadder’s job is not yet on the line, defeat at home in the first round of the playoffs would be unpalatable to many.
As the only team in the last six who have not won the Super Rugby title before, the Cheetahs travel to Canberra as firm underdogs, but coach Naka Drotske is convinced their fairytale season will not be ending on Sunday.
“This is the biggest challenge, to get the players to realise that we are not finished,” he said. “But watching them, it is exciting, to see they want to win, they are not done.”
Like Blackadder, White will rely on the vast experience of a world class openside flanker with George Smith returning to the starting line-up for the first time since winning his 111th test cap against the British and Irish Lions.
Equally significant, perhaps, would be the return of scrumhalf Nic White, who fractured his collarbone in early June and has been sidelined since.
A win for the Brumbies would send them to South Africa to face the Bulls in the semi-finals next weekend and the winner of the Christchurch clash to Hamilton to face the Chiefs.
If the Cheetahs manage an upset, they would go to New Zealand with the Crusaders or Reds making the long trip to Pretoria.