AUCKLAND, NZ – It’s official, the Crusaders will miss the Super Rugby playoffs and finish in their worst position on the table in 14 seasons. This came courtesy of the Waratahs, who won their 2014 grand final replay in fine style. Elsewhere the Hurricanes demolished the Blues, the Lions reminded everyone that they’re not the competition’s joke team anymore and the Highlanders sidestepped a potential banana-skin moment in Perth. Plus James O’Connor provided a possible the Idiot Of The Year moment as the Reds fell to the Sharks at home.
At Rotorua International Stadium, Rotorua: Chiefs 34 (Augustine Pulu 2, Liam Messam, Bryce Heem, Tim Nanai-Williams tries, Damian McKenzie 3 con, pen) Bulls 20 (Jan Serfontein, Bjorn Basson, Lappies Labuschagne tries, Handre Pollard con, pen)
The Chiefs bounced back from their controversial loss to the Canes last weekend with a good win over a very game Bulls side, who aren’t usually noted for their ability to play outside of South Africa. In fact, the visitors led 15-3 at on stage, even though both of their tries were a little on the lucky side. Bryce Heem can count himself lucky he didn’t pick up the Idiot Of The Week award when he tried to bat the ball over his dead ball line, his attempt ended up heading towards the Bulls one instead and was gleefully pounced on by Bjorn Basson. However, the Chiefs showed excellent composure and a couple of great performances from their halves saw them hit another gear after halftime. Heem made up for his earlier mistake and Tim Nanai-Williams chimed in with a good try off the bench. This leaves the Chiefs with the best possible chance to host their playoff match while the Bulls will be sweating on their next few results as well as what the Stormers are up to. Man Of The Match: Augustine Pulu staked his claim for inclusion in the international season with a fantastic game. Replay Worthy? Yes, some fine skill on display.
At Suncorp Stadium, Brisbane: Sharks 21 (Stefan Ungerer 2 tries, Francois Steyn con, 3 pen) Reds 14 (Samu Kerevi, Chris Kuridrani tries, James O’Connor 2 con)
So this one will be remembered for one dreadful kick by James O’Connor, but in reality it was a lot more than that that handed the Sharks an unlikely road victory over the Reds. While that was the most notable turnover that the Reds committed, there were about 20 more throughout the game that cost them dearly. When they weren’t doing that the Reds actually looked pretty good, Chris Kuridrani scored one of the best team tries this year and Samu Kerevi blasted his way over from short range to get them on the board. However, one of the few high points of the Sharks’ season has been their scrum, which they used to good effect to send Stefan Ungerer over in the first half, before the halfback found himself on the end of the worst clearing kick in history courtesy of O’Connor. To top that off, O’Connor found time to have a heated argument with team mate and former All Black Adam Thomson at halftime, which Will Genia had to break up before it got more serious. Both of these sides don’t have a hope of making the playoffs, so it was pretty encouraging for Queensland rugby that over 20,000 people got through the Suncorp Stadium gates. Man Of The Match: Stefan Ungerer, talk about being at the right place at the right time. Replay Worthy? If you’ve ever been a James O’Connor hater (there’s plenty out there), this one’s for you.
At Eden Park, Auckland: Hurricanes 29 (Chris Eves, TJ Perenara, Dane Coles, Nehe Milner-Skudder tries, Otere Black pen, 3 con) Blues 5 (Matt Vaega try)
The Blues only had only thing left to console themselves with after a miserable last few seasons, which was their impressive record at Eden Park. Unfortunately the Hurricanes showed nothing but complete contempt for that, brutally handing out a hiding from the first minute till the final whistle and erasing the word ‘fortress’ from any discussion of said venue. On a horrible night in Auckland the visitors simply bullied their opposites up front, firstly sending Chris Eves then TJ Perenara over from a few metres out, then opening it up long enough in the second for Dane Coles and Nehe Milner-Skudder (see Try Of The Week) to cross on each wing. The Blues’ only consolation was a try that came from their only foray into the Canes’ 22, by then it was very much too little, too late. Given that the home team was missing Jerome Kaino, Charles Piutau, Steven Luatua, Tony Woodcock and a heap of others, this result is about right (even if the Canes were down to their 3rd string first five in his first start). Man Of The Match: Chris Eves dominated his side of the scrum and was well-rewarded with a try. Replay Worthy? Not really, the conditions made this one an exercise in trucking it up the middle and kicking for territory.
At ANZ Stadium, Sydney: Waratahs 32 (Taqele Naiyaravoro 2, Rob Horne, Bernard Foley tries, Foley 3 con, 2 pen) Crusaders 22 (Nemani Nadolo, Richie McCaw, Matt Todd tries, Dan Carter 2 con, pen)
Another display of ignoring reputation went on straight after in Sydney, where the Tahs dealt the final hand of the Crusaders’ finals aspirations. However, this one was a little more pleasing to the eye as two of Super Rugby’s most exciting players went at it on the same pitch for the first time. Taqele Naiyaravoro and Nemani Nadolo both got across the stripe in exciting fashion for their respective sides, but it was the former who was smiling at full-time as the home side withstood a Crusaders comeback in the second half. Earlier it looked like it was going to be a cakewalk for the Tahs, who led at one stage by 17 before Richie McCaw and Matt Todd smashed over to draw them back within two. However, 2014 grand final hero Bernard Foley stepped up for the Tahs again and scored the game sealing try. The Tahs now have a slender 3-point lead at the top of the Australian conference over the Brumbies, they can’t afford to drop either of their upcoming games in South Africa. As mentioned earlier, the Crusaders now have next year to look forward to, which they might want to start planning for quickly given the amount of players they’re going to be losing in the offseason. Man Of The Match: The big Taqele Naiyaravoro has somehow been allowed to sign a contract with Edinburgh (!), hopefully the Tahs can convince him to reconsider, for their sake at least. Replay Worthy? Yes, great game.
At nib Stadium, Perth: Highlanders 23 (John Hardie, Aaron Smith tries, Lima Sopoaga 2 pen, con, dg, Marty Banks con) Western Force 3 (Sias Ebersohn pen)
Hey Northern Hemisphere, check it out! Turns out NZ does have a first five that doesn’t mind slotting a drop goal from 40 out. Lima Sopoaga did that possibly to remind the All Black selectors that he has that string in his bow as well as another excellent night off the tee as the Highlanders took care of business, nearly blanking the Force on their home ground. John Hardie was the beneficiary of a rolling maul after a try less first half, he was followed by Aaron Smith shortly after as the visitors did all they needed to on their way home from South Africa. The home side disappointingly didn’t fire a shot, which really sums up their season as well as this game, really. The Highlanders are now looking pretty good for a playoff spot, which will be a remarkable achievement given their franchise’s limited resources (even though the Blues are doing their best to help that by sending them good players every season). Man Of The Match: Sopoaga really is looking assured these days, perhaps an All Black call up is imminent. Replay Worthy? Not particularly, this was a case of a good team doing enough to get over a bad one.
At Free State Stadium, Bloemfontein: Lions 40 (Faf de Klerk, Jaco Kriel, Lionel Mapoe, Courtnall Skosan tries, Elton Jantjies 4 con, 4 pen) Cheetahs 17 (Boom Prinsloo 2 tries, Coenie van Wyk 2 con, Francois Brummer pen)
The Lions are busy scrambling for oxygen masks as they reached the rarified air of 7th spot on the table after this commanding win over their local rivals, dominating from start to finish. Season standouts Jaco Kriel and Lionel Mapoe crossed in the first half to shoot the Lions out to a 23-3 lead at half time and ending the game as a contest, however they put the foot on the throat in the second, crossing for another two. The bonus point win means they now have a real chance of sneaking into the playoffs, however it’s going to be tough considering they need to win their remaining two games before getting the last week off with a bye. Meanwhile, the Cheetahs responded to news of coach Naka Drotske’s impending departure with a performance that can sadly be described as typical of their Super Rugby campaign this season. Man Of The Match: Courtnall Skosan has been a real threat on the Lions’ wing these days. Replay Worthy? Yes, the Lions are well worth a look lately.
At Newlands Stadium, Cape Town: Stormers 31 (Dillyn Leyds 2, Damian de Allende tries, Demetri Catrakilis 4 pen, 2 con) Rebels 15 (Dom Shipperley, Tom English tries, Jack Debreczeni pen, Mike Harris con)
The Stormers made the Bulls pay for dropping their fixture by reclaiming the top spot in the South African conference against the scrappy Rebels. However, it was far from convincing and they’ll hardly be scaring their potential playoff opponents with the fact that two of their three tries came off Rebels mistakes. Dillyn Leyds picked off a pass by Pat Leafa to score his first, before a terrible scrum mixup by the Rebels led to his second. Even though Damian de Allende added another, it wasn’t quite the performance that the Stormers would have been hoping for at home and a bonus point here would’ve been pretty handy. The Rebels did well to get across twice, but their indiscipline cost them as Demetri Catrakilis punished them for anything kickable. Man Of The Match: Damian de Allende will most likely be a wider squad member for the Boks’ RWC at best, but right now he’s doing a fantastic job of filling Jean de Villiers’ boots. Replay Worthy? Not really.
The Brumbies nervously watched the last round develop, they’ll have a few key fixtures coming up to cement their spot in the playoffs. Here’s how the Super Rugby table looks after round 15:
Try Of The Week: It was a horrible night weather-wise in Auckland, but that didn’t stop Ray Lee-Lo throwing a sweet flick pass to Nehe Milner-Skudder to fly over in the corner against the Blues.
Performance Of The Week: The Tahs take it out this week, establishing a solid lead then withstanding a furious Crusaders comeback. Top spot in the Australian Conference is rightfully theirs.
Idiot Of The Week: James O’Connor’s never been that popular, maybe it’s because he looks like Justin Beiber, maybe it’s because he gets drunk and acts like a ass, or maybe over the last couple of days it’s because he did this. Take your pick.
The top playoff spot in the NZ conference is locked in, but the Aussies and South Africans are going to have a pretty interesting last few weeks. Keep an eye on the action coming up right here later on in the week.
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