AUCKLAND, NZ – The Super Rugby semi-finalists have been found for 2014 in dramatic fashion, with both playoff games going down to the wire. While most were picking close encounters for the Brumbies/Chiefs and Sharks/Highlanders fixtures, few would’ve guessed they would’ve ended up so high-scoring and entertaining. However, both games went to form so the semi finals next weekend will be between the top four teams in the comp at the end of the regular season.
The action started on Saturday night in Canberra, where the Brumbies pipped the Chiefs in a thriller. The home side shot out to a big lead early, scoring three unanswered tries. The first of which was an extremely cheeky effort by halfback Nic White who stole the ball off his own teammate and snuck around the blindside after a line out drive seemed destined to crash over. White probably annoyed his own forward pack as much as the Chiefs with that move. Winger Robbie Coleman finished off a sweeping counter attack to dot down near the posts and Jesse Mogg crashed over in the left hand corner soon after to get the score out to 22-3. However, this is a Chiefs side that’s battled adversity all season, so a 19 point deficit probably seemed like a minor inconvenience. Ireland-bound second five Bundee Aki crashed over just before the break to make the score a bit more manageable and the Chiefs headed into the sheds with a bit of momentum. Things were definitely going their way when Tawera Kerr-Barlow got the second cheeky halfback try of the night, this time coming off the back of a clear obstruction by one of his forwards. Then Tim Nanai-Williams chimed into the back line to dot down and even up the scores. The Brumbies finally woke up and got the line out try they should’ve had in the first half, steamrolling through an inexplicably weak Chiefs effort to take a seven point lead. The Chiefs still had one throw of the dice, with another departing player scoring the potentially match winning try. Gareth Anscombe, soon to be off to Wales, dotted down in the right hand corner to give All Black first five Aaron Cruden a chance to level the scores and send the game to overtime. Cruelly, Cruden’s kick drifted across the face of the posts and the home side hung on for a memorable victory.
Notable things to come out of this game included the performance of the Brumbies forwards, who demolished the Chiefs on two occasions to set up tries. If the Waratahs have one weakness lately it’s been their line out, so they will need to be on their game to deflect this threat. The Chiefs showed a ton of heart in this one, just making the playoffs after the situation they were in prior to the international break was a major feat. However, they will be bitterly disappointed to not get a chance to defend their title in a couple of weeks.
Brumbies 32 (Nic White, Robbie Coleman, Jesse Mogg, Jarrad Butler tries, Christian Lealiifano 3 con, 2 pen) Chiefs 30 (Bundee Aki, Tawera Kerr-Barlow, Tim Nanai-Williams, Gareth Anscombe tries, Aaron Cruden 2 pen, 2 con)
Man of the match: Although he didn’t feature on the scoresheet, Brumbies winger Henry Speight was a force of nature with ball in hand. No wonder the Wallabies are already sizing up his jersey measurements and the Chiefs are regretting letting him slip through their fingers when he was a player for Waikato in the ITM Cup.
The next playoff took place in Durban, the home of the Sharks. This game was another high scoring thriller, with the home side outlasting the valiant Highlanders at the Shark Tank. In contrast to the earlier match, these two teams went punch for punch all the way to the finish until the boot of Frans Steyn finally landed the knock out blow. The Sharks showed the Brumbies aren’t the only team with a strong line out drive, punishing the Highlanders early with a try. After half an hour the visitors struck back in sensational fashion, breakout star Malakai Fekitoa taking advantage of a huge gap to go 40 metres to score. Soon after the Highlanders forwards showed some great open-field skill that saw prop Kane Hames dot down after a Ben Smith break and they led 17-13 at the halftime. The Sharks scored a ridiculous try off an attempted pass in his own in goal by flanker Shane Christie that got broken up by a completely dominant Sharks scrum. They followed tho sup with a much more conventional try, wing Tonderai Chavanga burning down the left hand sideline to put the Sharks up by five. The momentum swung back the Highlanders way with a try to replacement Phil Burleigh and it looked like the visitors were on track to record a famous road playoff win, however Frans Steyn had other ideas. The big man with the big boot stepped up and nervelessly knocked over two penalties in the final 10 minutes to close out the game and set up a meeting with the Crusaders in Christchurch next weekend.
The Sharks will be happy to get this one out of the way but will still be spewing that they have to go back on the road next weekend for their semi. They’ve only got themselves to blame for their predicament, with a couple of crucial losses dashing their hopes of home field advantage. The Highlanders have had a fantastic season given the low expectations put on them earlier this year and it was very heartening to see them go down fighting and playing the attractive brand of rugby that’s got them this far.
Sharks 31 (Tonderai Chavhanga, Marcell Coetzee, Bismarck du Plessis tries, Frans Steyn 2 con, 4 pen) Highlanders 27 (Phil Burleigh, Malakai Fekitoa, Kane Hames tries, Lima Sopoaga 3 con, 2 pen)
Man of the match: Bismarck du Plessis led a gigantic forward effort by the Sharks that completely destroyed the Highlanders at scrum time, as well as managing to get on the score sheet. He’ll need a similar effort next weekend if the Sharks are going to repeat their heroics of earlier this season and beat the Crusaders on their home patch.
A couple of great games there that certainly had fans on the edge of their seats and a lot of neutrals thoroughly intrigued. Only two games means the weekly awards weren’t too hard to choose this week:
Try of the week: Just when you thought the Malakai Fekitoa 2014 highlight reel was full, the breakout star of the season goes and does this. Just to think, if the Blues had picked the Auckland local then he would’ve spent the whole season sitting on the bench.
Performance of the week: Goes to a losing side, the Chiefs, who could’ve packed it in but refused to lay down and die. Ending your season on a missed conversion is a sad way to go out, but there’s three big reasons why the Chiefs will be getting excited about next year already: S, B and W.
Idiot of the week: None really, given the high standard of play and officiating.
So the semi finals next week are set, a Super Saturday night beckons with both games going back to back:
Crusaders vs. Sharks at AMI Stadium, Christchurch. Kickoff: 7.35pm (NZT)
Waratahs vs. Brumbies at Allianz Stadium, Sydney. Kickoff: 9.30pm (NZT)
That’s it for now. Feel free to comment below, please look for and “Like” our Facebook Rugby Wrap Up Page and follow us on Twitter@:RugbyWrapUp, Junoir Blaber, Nick Hall, James Harrington, Jamie Wall, Jaime Loyd, DJ Eberle, Cody Kuxmann, Karen Ritter, Jake Frechette and Declan Yeats, respectively.