Mehrtens: Tahs, Crusaders may rue week off

15:00, Jul 20 2014
Richie McCaw
RECUPERATION: Crusader Richie McCaw could benefit from a week off as he recovers from injury.

So the prize for the Waratahs and the Crusaders for being the two strongest team in the competition is a week off before sudden death finals. I'm not sure that's ideal for the players involved.

The weekend off has its upsides, of course. It gives coaches another seven days to manage injuries (think Richie McCaw in the case of the Crusaders) and workload around key players, particularly their internationals.

But it can also break your rhythm - or at least upset it - as a player.

Sure, it's always good to have a weekend where you get to do things you don't ordinarily get to do whether that's spending time with your kids or socialising with mates.

But the trade-off is that trainings still continue and you have to maintain some sort of physical contact at those sessions.

Sometimes it can make for horribly long weeks.

I've just come from watching the second of the Waratahs' "sh*t sessions" for this week. It was close to a full blooded game in terms of physicality. But, unfortunately, no matter how much you try to simulate a match, this simply wasn't one and it ends up being anything but fun.

Admittedly, the Waratahs and Crusaders won't be wanting to swap places with any of the other four play-offs teams. But for Todd Blackadder and Michael Cheika, the challenge remains. How do they best manage their teams through the week?

From my observations, the Waratahs are quite content about not playing this weekend in that the attention is on the other teams and they can slip under the radar while continuing to get through their work. I have no doubt the Crusaders are thinking the same thing.

The culture in the Waratahs this year has been about focusing on their work and not getting ahead of themselves. The guys I've run into at the kicking sessions I run for them are polite, humble and motivated. There is a good feeling around the side. They can still improve and are by no means unbeatable.

But I have found it heartening to see reward coming for the efforts Cheika, my old mate Darryl Gibson and Nathan Grey have made to ensure this team lives good values.

It would be great to see the Highlanders gain a similar reward with another against-the-odds win in Durban this weekend.

But I fear the Highlanders will find a far less charitable Sharks outfit this time around.

Without taking anything away from that incredible win back in round 11 in Durban, the Sharks may well have expected business as usual as at that stage they had already won six from six at home, had two byes and an away win, and were comfortably astride the top of the table. 

They know the danger this time and although the Highlanders have been inspirational this year, the burden of lifting themselves so much for every game, and basically over-achieving, will have fatigued them to a point where a long trip to win in South Africa appears a bridge too far if not insurmountable. 

I have no doubt Jamie Joseph's men will throw everything into the match in the same way their coach did during his playing career, And they have absolutely nothing to lose. Their reward if they can upset the Sharks again? They get to hop back on the plane and come to Sydney to take on the competition high-flyers.

I think it will be another home win in the other semi tomorrow night in Canberra.

The Brumbies look slightly stronger than the Chiefs. But the Crusaders showed the blueprint for beating the Brumbies a few weeks back - smashing them off the ball in the breakdown and coming up fast with numbers on defence to deny them any go-forward and the chance for their game to take shape.

 And if there are any general strengths for the champions, I would list their aggressive organised defence, their muscle and their winning habit as the top three. The hallmark of teams where Wayne Smith has involvement is the ability to go into enemy territory and perform well, and lift themselves for play-off rugby. Don't write the champs off completely, although they will be up against it.

But, hey, don't go using my advice for betting or tipping competitions. How many times do you see former players leading or winning those ubiquitous tipping comps? Never - they're always won by people professing little knowledge of rugby, and who often make picks on the basis of jersey colour, team name or mascot toughness! 

I've been involved with these comps on Superbru, and in six years haven't come near breaking into the top five of my pools! So if you want to know who is going to win over the playoffs series, consult your least knowledgeable rugby colleagues