Preview: Crusaders v Sharks

Date published: July 25 2014

Travelling to a knockout game in Christchurch is the most difficult task in Super Rugby but the Sharks are well equipped to triumph.

Travelling to a knockout game in Christchurch is historically the most difficult task in Super Rugby, but if there is a team equipped to cause an upset in Saturday's first semi-final, it's the Sharks.

The task is mammoth. The Crusaders have hosted no less than 15 Super Rugby playoffs in the past and have a 100 percent win record on home soil.

In nine attempts, no South African team has won a playoff in New Zealand. No Kiwi side has lost a home semi-final, to anyone, in 16 matches.

Those are daunting stats but Sharks boss Jake White will have a few key bits of history at his disposal to make his team believe that winning is possible:

In the last 11 seasons of Super Rugby, only three teams have managed to win a semi-final away from home, but the Sharks are one of them, having beaten the Stormers at Newlands in 2012. White's Brumbies – using the same style he has implemented at the Sharks – were also victorious last year, when they upset the Bulls at Loftus.

White will also wave the carrot of a winnable final in front of his troops.

Indeed, immediately after the final round of the regular season, White noted that, unlike the losing finalists of the last two years, if the Sharks win this weekend they will not face the leg-breaking task of travelling across the Indian Ocean for a second time in a fortnight for an away final.

Depending on the result of the other semi-final, they will face a comparatively short trip to Sydney (on their route back to Durban anyway) to face a Waratahs side they have already beaten this year or they will host the Brumbies.

But more than anything, the World Cup-winning coach will point to the Sharks' historic win at AMI Stadium earlier this year, earned after playing most of the match with 14 men.

Then too the Sharks were the heavy underdogs and that success will give the visitors real belief that victory this weekend is very achievable.

It was a trademark performance from a White-coached team, surrendering possession with tactical kicking but suffocating the opposition with well-drilled defence and ruthlessly exploiting their scoring opportunities.

While the May victory offers the South Africans hope, they nevertheless face a Crusaders side full of confidence and coming off a rest week.

There is a school of thought that the bye week can actually be a disadvantage but the Crusaders staff have kept the intensity up by pitting their players against each other in a trail game last Friday.

At the moment the hosts are a very different unit to the side – missing Kieran Read and Dan Carter – that choked in May. If anything, that shock loss to the Sharks sparked a revival in their season and they've been in blistering form since.

There is no arguing that travelling from South Africa to New Zealand is the toughest trip in the competition and the Sharks will surely struggle in the last quarter.

There again, the stats do not paint an optimistic picture. In the final quarter of matches this season, the Crusaders' points difference is +62 compared to the Sharks' +24.

That puts the pressure on the Sharks to try and build a sustainable lead during the first hour but their gameplan is not geared for an expansive approach early on.

The Sharks achieved a Super Rugby record last weekend by landing their 74th penalty goal for the season. But their strategy is somewhat limited when opposition teams don't make mistakes and the Crusaders have conceded fewer penalties than any other team in the competition, an average of just 9.5 per game this season.

That said, the Sharks' winning record on the road this year speaks for itself and although their style can't be described as pretty, it is highly effective and difficult to combat, as the Crusaders have already found out.

The key to the outcome could well lie in the Crusaders' ability to adapt their approach to the task at hand. They will be able to match the Sharks in the trenches but, unlike the men in black, Todd Blackadder's team will be able to up the tempo when the time is right.

When the Crusaders turn on the gas, will the Sharks still have the legs to hang on?

Ones to watch:

For Crusaders: The King is back. Having sat out the last few weeks with a fractured rib, All Black skipper Richie McCaw returns to the Crusaders line-up, but on the blindside flank. The 33-year-old has been absolutely bubbling with energy at training this week and is dying to get on the park having seen very little action this year. If it was anyone else, one would have to question the wisdom of slotting a returning player straight into the starting line-up… out of position. McCaw is no longer a spring chicken and while his track record makes it nigh impossible for the Todd Blackadder to leave him on the bench, the flanker still faces a challenge if he hopes to be up to speed, especially given how well Jordan Taufua has performed. Also keep an eye on Nemani Nadolo – only Israel Folau (12) has scored more tries than the Fijian (10) in Super Rugby this season.

For Sharks: Sent off for stomping the last time the Sharks were in Christchurch, Jean Deysel will be keen to put in a more positive contribution this weekend. The flanker made an early appearance off the bench in the play-off against the Highlanders and was superb for the 50 minutes he was on the field. Deysel is an outstanding ball carrier, but given the Sharks have averaged the most turnovers conceded per game (16.5) in this year's competition and the fact that the Crusaders will essentially be playing with two opensides, Deysel's task of protecting the ball will be crucial. Also look out for Stephan Lewies, who tops the charts for line-outs won (77) and line-out steals (10) this season and is a key part of the Sharks' gameplan.

Head to Head: Both teams are blessed with an abundance of talent in the inside channel as Pat Lambie and Frans Steyn face off with Colin Slade and Dan Carter. With both fly-halves having the luxury of a back-up kicker it will be interesting to follow their decision-making. Steyn and Carter offer very different but equally dangerous threats with ball in hand. The respective packs are likely to neutralise each other, so the game could be won and lost in the play-making hub occupied by these four.

Form: The Sharks are trying to shake off a tag as Super Rugby's number one bridesmaid. They have made the playoffs on nine separate occasions but have failed to win a title in their four grand final appearances. The Sharks are coming off back-to-back wins over the Stormers and Highlanders, having scored three tries in both games. The seven-time champion Crusaders have lost just one in their last five games since going down to the Sharks in May. The hosts are coming off a bye week having thrashed the Highlanders 34-8 a week earlier. The Crusaders and Sharks have met in two Super Rugby