Rugby: Travel could count against Brumbies

Aaron Cruden, a key man for the Chiefs. Photo Getty
Aaron Cruden, a key man for the Chiefs. Photo Getty
The number of people picking a Chiefs-Brumbies final prior to last weekend's games would have been very few.

Of course the Chiefs were always going to be a good chance against the Crusaders, but most would have had them tagged as underdogs.

The Brumbies beating the Bulls in Pretoria was one that was harder to see coming and will be remembered as one of the great upsets of the Super Rugby playoffs.

Travel may be the biggest factor in determining next week's winner, as the Brumbies now have the daunting task of flying all the way back from South Africa to play an away final.

Do not underestimate the effect this will have on them. No New Zealand or Australian team has ever won a semifinal in South Africa and gone on to win the final, with the same being true for South African teams travelling to Australasia.

The last two seasons have seen this happen, with the Crusaders in 2011 and Sharks in 2012 falling victim to extensive travel schedules. It was perhaps seen the best in the Sharks example, as they did not have the legs by the time it got to the final and were shot before the game started.

Using this logic alone, you get the feeling that it will be an uphill battle for the Brumbies from the outset.

That said, this is finals footy and as we know only too well, finals hardly ever go to plan.

The most noticeable thing about both semifinals was the physicality all the teams brought to their game, which was central to both results.

After being bullied by the Crusaders just two weeks ago, it was clear the Chiefs did not want to be pushed around this time. They were strong in contact, hitting the rucks hard and defending aggressively to diminish the quality of ball the Crusaders had to work with. Their defence was outstanding, always well organised and with great line speed, which saw them withstand multiple assaults on their line.

It is this as much as anything that will make them a tough nut to crack for the Brumbies. But the Brumbies showed themselves to be capable of bringing a physical game too and will not be bullied by the Chiefs.

They got the better of the forward battle in the first half, getting to the breakdown quickly and running hard into contact. Their scrum too was excellent for the most part, with Ben Alexander getting the better of his man on multiple occasions, a far cry from the third Lions test three weeks ago.

A tight game may play more into the hands of the Brumbies, who prefer to employ a kick and chase game plan anyway. They will have to make sure they get this right against the Chiefs though, as the Chiefs have the players to punish them on the counter attack should they kick inaccurately.

Both teams have their share of game breakers, with Brumbies pair Henry Speight and Jesse Mogg among the most dangerous attacking players in the competition. Aaron Cruden is key for the Chiefs and is adept at putting his runners into gaps, making anyone running off him a threat.

It will be getting into the position to use these threats that will determine how dangerous each team is though.

This is done by gaining dominance up front and giving the backs clean ball to work with, which is where it really comes down to who is more committed, as both have shown themselves capable of doing this.

If the Brumbies excel they will need a big performance from George Smith, whose ability and understanding at the breakdown remains outstanding, allowing him to snaffle turnovers and mess up opposition ball. He is a hard player to negate, but the challenge for the Chiefs forward pack will be to beat him to the ruck and clear him away. Failure to do this could make it a long night for the home side.

Finals tend to be tight games and because of this you can bet it will be even. This takes us back to the initial point, that of the travel the Brumbies will have done by the time they take the field. If there is one thing that puts one team at a clear disadvantage it is this.

Still, don't write them off, in a one-off game anything can happen.

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