AUCKLAND, NZ – The Highlanders and Brumbies extended their seasons by a week at least by booking themselves a Super Rugby semi final spot at the expense of the Chiefs and Stormers respectively. Most predictions (including mine) were that the all-NZ clash would be a good watch and the match in Cape Town would be a bit of a slog-fest between two unimaginative teams. The first part of the prediction came true easily enough, but the Brumbies ensured everyone stood up and took notice of the fact that they’re not just a rolling-maul machine when they demolished the Stormers on their home patch.
At Forsyth Barr Stadium, Dunedin: Highlanders 24 (Waisake Naholo 2 tries, Lima Sopoaga con, 4 pen) Chiefs 14 (Brodie Retallick try, Andrew Horrell 3 pen)
The first home playoff game for the Highlanders in 16 long years had a very happy ending for the home team, clinching a memorable victory over a Chiefs side that put up a brave battle. The home team signaled their intentions early, a Lima Sopoaga cross-kick (he’s getting very good at these) apparently led to Patrick Osborne opening the scoring early, only to have it ruled out by the TMO because Waisake Naholo had put his foot in touch 50 metres back upfield. Naholo made up for it after 20 minutes after Aaron Smith made a break from a scrum on halfway. He combined with his winger to for Naholo to dot down and even though the game was being played at a frenetic pace that was the only try of the half as the teams went into the sheds with the score at 9-8 to the Chiefs.
The second half saw the home team really start to assert it’s dominance in the tight exchanges, with a good scrum five metres out leading to Aaron Smith again scooting away and linking up with Naholo to dive over in the right hand corner. This score would prove crucial as the game folded into tight exchanges up the middle as the Chiefs tried to desperately break through. They did, eventually, through Brodie Retallick after an excellent build up, but it was going to take a massive effort to haul in the Highlanders at the rate they were going. The rest of the match was a case of the Highlanders securing possession expertly and putting themselves into a position to either try a drop goal or milk a penalty. It came on the stroke of full time and sent the big crowd of rowdy locals into raptures as their team now goes to Sydney.
So what went wrong for the Chiefs? Probably that Andrew Horrell and not Damian McKenzie was playing first five would be a pretty good start, Horrell is a fine player but McKenzie has quite clearly been their best 10 behind the injured Aaron Cruden. D-Mac did play at fullback and was probably the Chiefs’ best player on the field, one can only wonder why Dave Rennie didn’t have faith in the 20 year old to handle the back line. In contrast, Horrell was ponderous at best and got absolutely hammered by Malakai Fekitoa in the first half. The Highlanders simply outmuscled their opponents up front, the final stage of the game was punctuated by Chiefs forwards giving away stupid penalties in a desperate attempt to get the ball back. SBW was outplayed by the unfancied Richard Buckman in the midfield and while Osborne and Naholo were immense, little was seen from the Chiefs wingers.
Man Of The Match: Aaron Smith was incredible in this game. He set up both crucial tries by linking almost psychically with Naholo, made all the right decisions and kicked intelligently. Performances like this are the reason why he is the number one All Black halfback and there is essentially daylight second.
Replay Worthy? Yes, these two teams added another exciting chapter to their impressive run of matches lately.
At Newlands Stadium, Cape Town: Brumbies 39 (Joe Tomane 3, Jesse Mogg, Scott Sio, Ita Vaea tries, Christian Leali’ifano 3 con, pen) Stormers 19 (Cheslin Kolbe try, Demetri Catrakilis con, 4 pen)
Wow, where’s this Brumbies team been? Forget their boring (and sometimes unsuccessful) tactics of keeping it tight, the men from Canberra exploded out of the blocks and stunned the Stormers with a hiding that is actually much worse than the scoreline suggests, not that it’s exactly flattering anyway. David Pocock has scored two hat tricks this season, but even he’d have a pretty easy time of it conceding that Joe Tomane’s effort in this game was a much better watch. Tomane had an insane first 20 minutes, scoring the first of his natural hat trick through a Nic White grubber, then linking with Blake Enever for his second and then busting out a huge fend for his third (and Try Of The Week). All this and a Scott Sio try made it an incredible 24-6 lead at halftime and the Stormers looked like they hadn’t even got out of bed yet.
It was always going to be a hard ask to peg that sort of scoreline but the Stormers caught a break early in the second half when Cheslin Kolbe latched onto an errant Brumbies pass and scooted 60 metres to score. However, it turned out to little more than a hiccup for the visitors, who turned the gas back on to torch the home team through big Ita Vaea from close range. Once the game was beyond doubt the Brumbies were guilty of slacking off, first Henry Speight was sent off (see Idiot Of The Week), then Scott Fardy was binned to leave them with 13 men to finish the match. Even still, the Stormers were so far gone by that stage they let Jesse Mogg get across to make the scoreline just that much more embarrassing.
OK, so this game will most probably have opponents of the Conference system foaming at the mouth (the Stormers were the 7th ranked team on points overall, but won the SA conference so got a home playoff), but there’s more to their capitulation than a mediocre regular season. As well as losing Duane Vermuelen midweek, they also had to do without Schalk Burger, who was ruled out just before kick off. Adding to that, Vermuelen’s replacement Nizaam Carr tried to tackle Ita Vaea’s knee with his face and that was the end of him after 20 minutes. That robbed the Stormers of their key ball-running forwards, plus the Brumbies ability to hang on to possession gave their backs precious little to work with. The game was pretty much gone after the first 20 anyway, Tomane’s third summing up proceedings as ran amok down the left wing. The Brumbies should be a little bit annoyed at their indiscipline at the end, Speight will most probably be out for their match next weekend.
Man Of The Match: Joe Tomane basically won this game by himself after 20 minutes.
Replay Worthy? Yes, a very different game to the other playoff but beatdowns are good to watch too.
Try Of The Week: Some good ones even though there were only two games, but Joe Tomane’s third wins on account of it’s awesome brutality.
Performance Of The Week: The Brumbies, for surprising us all (especially the Stormers). Have they been playing boring all year to lull everyone else into a false sense of security?
Idiot Of The Week: A Brumbies clean sweep this week, with the normally well-disciplined Henry Speight inexplicably dumping Juan de Jongh on his head despite the outcome of the game having been well settled.
So these two results means we’ll be seeing the Hurricanes against the Brumbies in Wellington and the Waratahs against the Highlanders in Sydney next weekend. Let’s hope it’s another couple of crackers like we saw this weekend.
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