AUCKLAND, NZ – Is it time to officially start believing in the Tahs? The Sharks dropped a seemingly guaranteed win to the Cheetahs in this latest round of Super Rugby, to all but guarantee the men from Sydney the top spot in the competition. That means home field advantage for the play-offs. After their demolition job of the Highlanders on Sunday evening, the Waratahs are very much favorites to win their first Super Rugby title.
However, before all that drama unfolded, the action started on Friday night in Hamilton, where the desperation of the two-time defending champion Chiefs got them home over an inept Hurricanes outfit. In vintage Canes style, they managed to lose the game that really mattered before they have to sit out next weekend with a bye. While this match was low-scoring to start off with, both sides showed a lot of urgency, as bonus points would be crucial. The Chiefs slowly wrestled away control in front of their home crowd and dotted down for two tries that sealed the game, while the Canes answered in very much a too little-too late manner. The Canes definitely missed Victor Vito and Alapati Leuia, but the fact is they never got out of first gear till very late and let the Chiefs dictate terms. Aaron Cruden made up for last week’s shocker with a much better performance, as did Number 8 Liam Squire. The Chiefs now head up to Eden Park for a must-win encounter with the Blues, while the Hurricanes will be probably be downing a few beers and feeling sorry for themselves. On a lighter note, this game also contained not one, not two, but three streakers who invaded the pitch at once. One of them managed to evade security for far longer than he should have due to their woeful fitness and tackling technique.
Chiefs 24 (Jamie Mackintosh, Brodie Retallick tries, Aaron Cruden 4 pen, con) Hurricanes 16 (Hadleigh Parkes try, Beauden Barrett 3 pen, con)
Man of the Match: Chiefs lock Brodie Retallick was tireless around the park and was well-rewarded with a try. You get the feeling a lot of the All Blacks future aspirations lie on his shoulders.
In the who-the-hell-cares conference, the Lions picked up a win over the Rebels in Jonhannesberg. Both these sides had nothing to play for except pride, so it was fitting the team called the Lions won. Especially considering the fact that the Rebels didn’t even seem like they wanted to be there at all, given that it was freezing and hardly anyone had shown up to watch in the cavernous Ellis Park stands. True to form, it was the boot of Marnitz Boshoff that got the home side to victory, slotting five penalties and two conversions. Other than that there’s little else to report about this one, both teams already planning for next year it seems. The Rebels suffer not only the loss but a trip to the bottom of the table, where they’ll most likely stay.
Lions 34 (Anthony Volmink, Warwick Tecklenburg, Warren Whiteley tries, Marnitz Boshoff 5 pen, 2 con) Rebels 17 (Tom English, Colby Fainga’a tries, Jack Debreczeni pen, 2 con)
Man of the Match: I dunno, Marnitz Boshoff I guess.
The other big NZ conference game was in Christchurch, where the Crusaders found a bit of the form that’s been eluding them recently to post a win over the Blues. This loss means the Blues are now all but gone from the playoff hunt and can only be spoilers for the Chiefs next weekend. Their only try came off a Frank Halai intercept while the hosts were camped on the Blues goal line and he scooted 95 metres to score under the posts. Poor old Colin Slade saw his mouthguard go flying for the second tim win two weeks, at least the guy destroying him this time was an All Black. Speaking of All Blacks, Dan Carter showed that he’s still very much got it by providing a miracle ball to set up Nemani Nadolo, who the Crusaders very much missed while he was away playing for Fiji. While it was definitely hard fought, the result of this one was never really in doubt and the Crusaders will now turn their attention to locking in a home semi-final in their last match against the Highlanders. Meanwhile the Blues have the incentive of protecting their home ground win-streak at Eden Park next week against the Chiefs.
Crusaders 21 (Nemani Nadolo 2 tries, Colin Slade 2 pen, Dan Carter pen, con) Blues 13 (Frank Halai try, Ihaia West con, 2 pen)
Man of the Match: Nemani Nadolo showed why he’s very much the find of the 2014 season in the NZ conference. Let’s all hope he sticks around next year.
Straight after that game the action continued way over in Perth, where the Force bounced back from their hiding last week to get an important victory over the Reds. This win now moves them back to within striking distance of the playoffs and their match against the Brumbies next weekend a virtual quarterfinal for both sides. The Reds, who have shown more than a bit of fight in recent weeks, competed for most of this match but were undone once again by indiscipline and some good attacking options from the Force. In fact, they actually locked the game up at 20-all late in the second half but the Force dug deep to seal the game through hooker Nathan Charles and a penalty to Jayden Hayward. The Force will have to be on their game next week in Canberra, it would be a shame for their breakout season to have a limp ending without a finals appearance. The Reds will just be looking forward to having a few weeks off before their stars get a crack on the international stage.
Force 30 (Nick Cummins, Ben McCalman, Nathan Charles tries, Jayden Hayward 3 pen, 3 con) Reds 20 (Samu Kerevi, Albert Anae tries, Mike Harris 2 pen, con)
Man of the match: Force fullback Jayden Hayward kept his cool to slot the important kicks that made the difference in this one.
Over in Cape Town, another team that had it’s playoff hopes extinguished were the Bulls, who barely even showed up to not only lose to the Stormers, but get blanked doing so. Unless you’re a hard core Stormers fan there’s really not too much to get excited about here, a few penalties and a solitary try to Jaco Taute in wet conditions was all they could muster. The real story here was how bad the Bulls were after being handed two very winnable games to have a shot at the playoffs. Given the low expectations on the Bulls at the start of the season one would’ve expected some sort of fairytale finish, but I guess the Force had earmarked that as theirs. Still, getting pantsed is a remarkably low blow for the Bulls, who suffer the ignominy of seeing the under-achieving Stormers potentially jump ahead of them on the table after next week.
Stormers 16 (Jaco Taute try, Kurt Coleman 3 pen, con) Bulls 0
Man of the Match: No one.
Then to Bloemfontein for the game that should’ve been a walkover, but instead saw the Sharks surrender not only the match to the last-placed Cheetahs, but also their top spot on the Super Rugby table. In an entertaining match, the Cheetahs struck first through a ridiculous 30 metre maul that required no rolling, just a straight ahead push that the Sharks all hung off from. Sharks half Cobus Reinach struck back soon after with a more conventional route to the try line. The game settled down and the Cheetahs took control in front of their home crowd, shooting out to a 14 point advantage before the Sharks mounted a desperate late charge. They got half the points they needed with a try to Bismarck du Plessis, but what would’ve been the equalizer got snuffed out by the TMO and the Cheetahs hung on till full-time. So bragging rights can go to the Cheetahs in probably their most memorable result of the year, while the Sharks will be spewing they dropped this game – and top spot on the table with it. They may end up as far down as fourth depending on next week, which will be a major blow to their title aspirations.
Cheetahs 27 (Torsten van Jaarsveld, Philip van der Walt, Lood de Jager tries, Johan Goosen 3 pen, 2 con) Sharks 20 (Cobus Reinach, Bismarck du Plessis tries, Tim Swiel 2 con, 2 pen)
Man of the Match: Philip van der Walt had a big day in all departments, open field, tight play and set piece.
The last match of the round was on a Sunday evening over in Sydney, where the Waratahs knew exactly what they had to do against the Highlanders and did so in emphatic style to claim the top spot vacated by the Sharks. This game was pretty much one-way traffic, with the Tahs grinding out a one-try first half before turning on the accelerator to smash over for five more in the second. A big forward effort gave the backs plenty of room to work in and a dominant scrum certainly helped the Tahs as well. The Highlanders were incredibly disappointing given their good win last weekend and will be nervously figuring out what sort of playoff connotations this loss means, as one of the possibilities is a trip back to Sydney to face a Tahs side that’s looking better and better at the right stage of the season. This result renders next weekend game against the Reds all but meaningless in terms of Super Rugby glory for the Tahs, who have the luxury of being able to give their stars a rest if needed. The Highlanders now have a crucial match against the Crusaders in Christchurch, if it’s anywhere near as good as their last game it’ll be well worth watching.
Waratahs 44 (Rob Horne, Israel Folau, Sekope Kepu, Nick Phipps, Jacques Potgieter, Taqele Naiyaravoro tries, Bernard Foley 5 con, 2 pen) Highlanders 16 (Phil Burleigh try, Lima Sopoaga 3 pen, Hayden Parker con)
Man of the Match: Tahs halfback Nick Phipps was outstanding and gave the Wallaby selectors another welcome problem ahead of the upcoming Rugby Championship.
Watching all this unfold were the Brumbies, who now know they’ve got a crucial game to close out against the Force. Whoever made this year’s draw ought to be commended, it’s turned into the tightest race for the playoffs ever with half of the spots up for grabs in the last weekend. Time for the weekly awards:
Performance of the Week: Have to give it to the Cheetahs. Any time a team coming last knocks off the team coming first it not only shows that they deserve respect but also validates the competitive nature of Super Rugby.
Try of the Week: Not often props get this award but Sekope Kepu not only benefitted from an amazing offload by Alofa Alofa but then showed great awareness to plant the ball.
Idiot of the Week: Super Rugby expansion rumors now state that Singapore is in line to get a team for the 2016 season. Good idea to whoever came up with that because I’m sure they’ll do REALLY well.
Here’s how the table looks heading into the last round:
AUS: Waratahs 53 (clinched conference, first place overall)
NZ: Crusaders 46
SA: Sharks 46 (clinched conference)
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.