WELLINGTON – The Crusaders are taking a cautious approach to Saturday’s all-New Zealand Super Rugby semi-final against the Chiefs despite their opponents having made the trek back from South Africa this week.
The long-haul trip from Australasia to Africa and back has almost always proved fatal come the playoffs, but the Chiefs have become something of a bogey team for the Crusaders in the nine years since the seven-times champions last won the title.
So while a 14-1 regular season record makes the Crusaders strong favourites to progress to a final against the Lions or Hurricanes, coach Scott Robertson is taking nothing for granted.
“Even though they are flying back, it doesn’t mean the old mindset isn’t going to be right,” he told reporters on Thursday.
“They can turn up and climb into us, like they have done in years gone by.”
Having beaten the Stormers 17-11 in Cape Town last weekend, the Chiefs will now be looking to restore their recent dominance over the Crusaders.
The Crusaders’ 31-24 victory in Suva in May ended a run of four defeats to the Chiefs, stretching back to 2014.
The Hamilton-based Chiefs have won nine of the 13 meetings between the teams since Dave Rennie took charge in 2012, including semi-final match-ups that year and in 2013, when they went on to secure their two Super Rugby titles.
Unlike those matches, however, the Crusaders will be playing in Christchurch on Saturday.
“They used their home-ground advantage on those occasions, but this time we have earned the chance to play in front of our own supporters, and that means a lot to us,” said Robertson.
While the Crusaders will put out the same team that beat the Highlanders 17-0 in last week’s quarters, the Chiefs will welcome back centre Charlie Ngatai from an ankle injury and have brought wing Tim Nanai-Williams off the bench.
It is up front, though, that the Chiefs might face their toughest battle as they take on a Crusaders pack which includes seven All Black starters and a further two international forwards on the bench.
“As long as I can remember, they’ve always had the best pack in the competition,” Rennie said.
“They drive well, they’ve got a great defensive lineout. We’ve always known what that challenge is, and we’ve got a group of men who are keen to measure themselves.”
Having slipped up in their last match of the regular season against the Hurricanes, the Crusaders will be relying on the reigning champions to beat the Lions in Saturday’s other semi-final in Johannesburg to give them a chance of a home final.