AUCKLAND, NZ – There’ll be a new team added to the list of Super Rugby champions after next weekend. For now the club includes the Blues, Crusaders, Brumbies, Bulls, Reds and Chiefs, but either the Hurricanes or Highlanders will have their name etched in after they both triumphed in their remarkably one-sided semi finals last night. Haters of NZ rugby, this is probably a good time to stop reading right now – what follows is pretty much an exultation of why we’re the best in the world at this game.
At Westpac Stadium, Wellington: Hurricanes 29 (Julian Savea, TJ Perenara, Ardie Savea, Matt Proctor tries, Beauden Barrett con, James Marshall 2 con, pen) Brumbies 9 (Jesse Mogg pen, Christian Leali’ifano 2 pen)
Bonus points don’t mean anything in sudden death games, but that didn’t blunt the Hurricanes’ season-long commitment to attacking rugby one bit in this beatdown. The Brumbies were blown away, conceding four very well-constructed tries and perhaps showing that a round trip to Cape Town and then across the Tasman in the last week and a half took too much of a toll. The Canes dominated possession early and created a decent amount of chances before Julian Savea did what he does best after 20 minutes. The big winger got the ball with about 5 metres to work with, simply brushing off Nic White’s tackle attempt and diving over to score the opener. Nehe Milner-Skudder then sparked the second, breaking free down the right wing to link with James Marshall. He in turn found TJ Perenara and gave him a clear run to the line, the halfback streaking away to score his 11th try of the season. Halftime read 12-0 to the home side, but it really could’ve been twice that.
If the visitors thought the second half was going to be any easier, the Canes supremely negated that notion with a punch square in the mouth off an attacking lineout. Ardie Savea’s path to the line was probably the fastest anyone’s ever traveled in a drive this year, proving that the home side play every facet of the game at pace. By now the writing was very much on the wall for the Brumbies, whose only answer to all of this were a trio of penalties. The rest of the second half was very much an exercise in game management for the Canes, who showed an admirable amount of patience and a serious improvement in the set piece. It was fitting that the game ended with a flash of brilliance, Victor Vito throwing a beautiful offload for Matt Proctor to crash over just before full-time.
So what went right for the Canes? Pretty much everything – they started well, kicked intelligently and shifted the ball to their key weapons out wide often. Milner-Skudder and Savea got through a power of work and Marshall (apart from one glaring handling error) was accurate and effective. The Brumbies have to be admired for their heroics last week against the Stormers, but they hardly fired a shot in this game. Influential David Pocock was anonymous, Christian Leali’ifano struggled with the meagre front foot ball he got and they were clearly missing the suspended Henry Speight on the right wing. One gripe: the officiating by Glen Jackson was beyond awful. He missed a great deal of infringements around the ruck, if he’s this blind in real life then let’s hope he doesn’t have a driver’s license. There’s long been a suspicion over his rapid rise up the refereeing ranks due to his status as a former top-level player, he’d better up his game pretty quickly in case his inexperience costs anyone at the World Cup. The Canes are now one agonizing step away from a maiden Super Rugby title, having the decider at a packed Westpac Stadium will give them an enormous psychological advantage.
Man Of The Match: It seems a little unfair to single any one Hurricane out, given this was such a team effort. However, Julian Savea set the tone early and scored an excellent try.
Replay Worthy? Absolutely.
At Allianz Stadium, Sydney: Highlanders 35 (Aaron Smith, Richard Buckman, Waisake Naholo, Patrick Osborne tries, penalty try, Lima Sopoaga pen, 2 con, dg) Waratahs 17 (Rob Horne try, Bernard Foley 4 pen)
The big talking point around this game will be that around the penalty try that pushed the Highlanders’ lead out to 10 points in the second half, but it really shouldn’t be. The real story here is the excellent performance of the visitors, who, after conceding an early try to Rob Horne, got themselves back into the game through some cheekiness in the first half and sheer determination in the second. Aaron Smith continued his insane run of form by picking off an errant pass by Wyclef Palu at the base of the Tahs scrum, before Richard Buckman showed more than a little nous to score their second. Buckman was brought to ground 30 metres out but wasn’t held, quickly getting to his feet and scampering the rest of the way while the Tahs wondered what he was doing. Bernard Foley kept the Tahs in touch with some accurate goal kicking, but it was already starting to seem like the game was slipping out of their grasp.
The Tahs briefly took the lead through Foley’s boot before an amazing piece of skill from Waisake Naholo down the right wing cleared the way for the Highlanders to take the lead and never look back. His chase from outside the touchline of a kick that for all money looked like it was going to harmlessly roll dead resulted in the Try Of The Week and a reinvigorated sense of attack. Three minutes later they were back, hammering away at the Tahs line when Patrick Osborne came off his wing and took a hit up close to the line. Tahs flanker Jacques Potgeiter came in with a swinging arm, stopping Osborne short but raising the curiosity of referee Craig Joubert. The result was a penalty try and yellow card to Potgeiter, who was playing his last match for the Tahs before he returns home to South Africa. After that the home side’s demeanor slumped, the visitors controlled the ball and it was fitting that Osborne eventually got the try he was denied earlier on the stroke of full-time.
At least the Brumbies had the travel factor to blame for their lethargy, the Tahs on the other hand had last weekend off to prepare for this game. They looked remarkably off pace, which is odd because it had seemed like they’d timed their run at the finals perfectly after a shaky start to the season. The Highlanders have now defied all predictions to reach their first final since 1999, key to their success was the performance of their forwards. They threw themselves into the Tahs, a few of them probably have a decent sized chip on their shoulder after being overlooked for the All Blacks.
Man Of The Match: Highlanders number 8 Elliott Dixon is one of those branded ‘unlucky’ after missing out on a place in the national squad, it’s hard to disagree after performances last night.
Replay Worthy? Yes, although a great deal of Tahs supporters will probably disagree about the fairness of the penalty try.
Try Of The Week: Waisake Naholo celebrated his naming in the All Black squad by scoring this blinder to give the Highlanders the lead that they kept for good.
Performance Of The Week: Pretty hard to split the two victors this week, both the Canes and Highlanders were highly impressive.
Idiot Of The Week: Jacques Potgeiter gets it this week, while his swinging arm probably didn’t hurt Patrick Osborne it was very much the fatal blow to the Tah’s chances in this game and of defending their title.
The scene is now set for a high-octane back at Westpac Stadium next Saturday night. There’s All Black match-ups across the park, I’ll have a full preview later on in the week.
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