Durban - Losing to the Sharks in pool play was so unlike the Crusaders.
At home and with a man advantage after Jean Deysel was sent off early, the Crusaders rarely got out of third gear and certainly did not engage their rugby brains.
They failed to press through the middle and then spread the ball wide, while the Sharks showed rare resolve to collect their first win in Christchurch.
It was a bit surreal, not the rugby order we had come to expect from those in the red and black jerseys as, disturbingly, they played without their usual smarts. They were without key men Kieran Read, Andy Ellis, Daniel Carter and Israel Dagg, who will all play in Saturday’s semi-final, but their absence did not excuse the brain fades. Even Richie McCaw could not alter the side’s mindset or tactics that night.
He is training after time out with a cracked rib and is tipped to replace Jordan Taufua on the blindside, leaving Matt Todd to roam wider.
What is certain about the Crusaders is that they will bring more line-out and scrum solidity than the Highlanders could in Durban.
They conceded three tries in those areas of the game.
They tried to keep the ball alive in a tactic to negate the Sharks’ power in rucks and mauls and reduce the time they had to reset their defence.
That free-wheeling style drew great dividends, with Kane Hames’ try one of the best all season.
The Sharks arrived in Christchurch after 36 hours of travel and have booked into the Clear Water Resort, a golf estate outside the city that also boasts a rugby field for touring teams.
On the long flight over, one of coach Jake White’s chief thoughts would have been on who to start at flyhalf.
He has hinted at starting Patrick Lambie straight into the team and move Frans Steyn from 10 to centre.
Paul Jordaan would be the outside centre and S’bura Sithole would probably drop to the bench, with JP Pietersen moving out to the wing.
“I thought we played our best rugby in the final quarter when Patrick came on off the bench,” White said.
Former Springbok coach Nick Mallett thinks it would be much harder for the Sharks to impose their plans on the Crusaders.
“My concern going into the semi-finals is that the Crusaders’ forwards will match the Sharks’ as they have six or seven All Blacks,” he told a South African website.
“They won’t concede a lot of scrum penalties. The Sharks’ pattern of play - a good scrum and line-out and a strong kicking game - won’t be as easy to impose on the Crusaders as it was on the Highlanders.
“While the referee will be neutral, he will favour the home side with the 50-50 calls. That will make playing without the ball risky [for the Sharks].
“The Crusaders also have outstanding backs who will create opportunities.”
One of those backs will be Carter, who has returned to play at centre, where he offers tactical direction to Colin Slade, brings up the defensive line and is also used as an alternate receiver.
He is the main goal-kicker and with Slade, offers left and right foot tactical kicking strategies for the Crusaders.
The variation has grown with Ryan Crotty at centre, while Nemani Nadolo has been destructive at wing.
Chuck in Dagg, and there is a better balance about their group as they attempt to reach their second final under coach Todd Blackadder.