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Roll on the semifinals

Four quality teams are left to fight it out for the Super Rugby title. They all deserve to be there, and we will get a worthy champion from them.

Three of the teams are from New Zealand, but it is the game in Johannesburg that holds the key to this year's title.

If the Lions win, they become favourites for the title, and if the Hurricanes win it’s there for the winner of the Crusaders v Chiefs game.

Why? Because of the travel factor. I’ve said it before, will say it again, there should be a week off between the semifinal and the final. That there isn’t one counted against the Lions last year and the Sharks in 2012, and this year it will count in favour of the Lions.

OK, so it’s swings and roundabouts, and in a competition that has rewarded too much mediocrity since the last format change, it at least favours the team with the best season record.

But let’s just push that side for a bit and weigh up what we have seen over the past weekend and what lies ahead.

Fair to say, none of the quarterfinals were spectacular matches, and were too punctuated by pressure-induced errors to be considered quality affairs, but they were certainly compelling contests.

As many forecast, the New Zealand teams have been a bit slow to get going after the break and all the focus on the Lions tour, and the Hurricanes had to bide their time before putting away the Brumbies.

The Brumbies barely deserved to be there, and certainly did not deserve home advantage on their rather feeble six win and nine loss season record, but they put up a decent fight before Australia’s Super Rugby season was finally put out of its misery.

Hurricanes coach Chris Boyd was outwardly not too happy with the performance as the team headed to Sydney to wait and find out whether they would be heading east or west on Sunday.

There was enough upside in the win though, most notably the return of Dane Coles after a long layoff to bounce quickly into some form with a trademark burst to lay on a try for TJ Perenara. He should start this weekend and his clash with the hugely impressive Malcolm Marx will be one to watch.

One of the tries in this match is worth revisiting.

I refer to the “falcon” try scored by Jordi Barrett after an unexpected pass had cannoned off the head of prop Jeffrey Toomaga Allen into the in-goal, where a quick Jordi Barret pounced, knowing that a “header” is not a knock on.

I remember from my time in the UK, a very forward-thinking Kiwi rugby league coach, Mike McLennan, used the head-forward as a tactic to score tries, and it does beg the question whether it might become a ploy in rugby.

The latest round of convoluted law changes have already been set in stone ready to make the game all the more confusing, but perhaps they might need to tighten the loophole over the falcon (don’t ask me why it’s called that, it’s an Aussie thing), because it could get ridiculous.

Saturday night's match in Christchurch coincided with a weather bomb in the South Island, and a state of emergency in parts of the city, with up to 5000 ticket holders not willing or able to show up.

The Crusaders adjusted best to the sodden conditions, their forwards completely dominating to allow their team to spend 75 per cent of the game in Highlanders territory.

In a funny sort of way, it was the best performance of the weekend, because the Highlanders are a good team, and yet they were completely shut out. On this evidence the Crusaders are the team to beat, it’s just that nagging reservation over the travel that would force a hedging of the bets if they were to go to Ellis Park.

And they have to deal with the Chiefs before that.

Again, the game in Cape Town featured a lot of errors, but in the end the best team won.

The Chiefs were just a bit better across the board. We’re not talking any great margins, but there were key gains at the breakdown where the Chiefs won more turnover ball, and in the battle for the gain line, where the Chiefs made an average of a metre more per carry. The set-piece evened out but the goal kicking of Damien McKenzie was just that bit more accurate.

I also thought Brodie Retallick edged the battle of the big men. He may just be the best forward in the game right now.

The Stormers had their chance when TMO Shaun Veldsman rightly persuaded Jaco Peyper to sin bin Sam Cane for a tackle that last year would have been just a penalty, but is now a card under the stricter guidelines.

However, the Stormers wasted their opportunity. The Chiefs are a good defensive side and are unlikely to be bludgeoned into submission by players who run straight at them.

Still, it’s been a better season for the men from Cape Town, the same number of wins but two against NZ opposition, with not such an ignominious exit as last year and a better style of rugby.

Until the 77th minute of the game at Ellis Park, the Hurricanes would have been thinking they were heading home to play the Sharks, before Ruan Combrinck stepped up with his monster penalty goal, a clutch shot of Michel Jordan proportions.

Much as the Lions, and Combrinck in particular, deserve credit for the way they stayed in the fight and landed the knockout blow, the Sharks really should have held on for this one.

Twice Curwin Bosch tried speculative drop goals, when they might have been better hanging onto the ball and building pressure. Even when they did that there were too many players waving for a penalty when they should have had their minds on the ball.

So what are the prospects for the semis?

Firstly the trip back from Cape Town will definitely count against the Chiefs, as it is considered much harder travelling in the eastward direction.

The ground at AMI Stadium is unlikely to have fully recovered which will again bring the Crusaders forwards into sharp focus.

The Crusaders won the earlier game between the two in Fiji, but recent form had been with the Chiefs, having won the previous four straight. Overall, the Crusaders have won 17 games to the Chiefs' 13.

Even without the travel factored in I’d be picking the Crusaders to win a tight one, but it should be an excellent clash, provided conditions are reasonable.

Ironically, the quarterfinal draw was done to save money and make travel arrangements more fluid, but under the old system the Chiefs, as fourth seed, would have stayed in South Africa and gone up to play the Lions, which might have allowed them to be in better shape for a semifinal.

Instead the Lions will play the Hurricanes and this is a tough one to pick.

In the Lions' favour is home advantage and the fact that they have been sleeping in their own beds and not inside a tin can at 35,000 feet. Altitude is less of a factor than it used to be as the New Zealand teams are very fit, but it is still Ellis Park, where NZ teams have often battled.

There is no problem with Jaco Peyper refereeing the match, he has been outstanding in recent weeks, but across the board in this year's Super Rugby, there have been too many shonky calls by the support staff. Many of those have been of the home-town variety, and way too much of an influence has been had by those not in the middle of the park. Sanzaar chose not to opt for the easy fix, and have instead gone for the cheaper one.

So the Hurricanes will have to watch their discipline for starters, but if they can do that, then they have a good shot.

The numbers are conflicting.

Home teams have won Super Rugby semifinals to the tune of 34-8 and only six teams have ever won a semi outside their own country.

But the ‘Canes have won the last eight against the Lions, including two fairly comfortable wins last year. They put 50 on them in Jo’burg.

The keys to their game will be to try and emulate their success of last year's game at Ellis Park, where they met the Lions with aggressive defence and stopped them on the gain line. If they can deny the Lions momentum and get a share of the ball, they have the attack to win.

And they will doubtless try and pile the pressure on Elton Jantjies, who is coming off a very jittery quarterfinal, where aside from some panicky general play, 13 points were left on the kicking tee.

There is the question of the Lions not having played any Kiwi opposition this year, and the fact that the Lions are without their outstanding leader Warren Whiteley.

So there’s a bit to encourage Hurricanes fans, but it’s the combined effect of what surely will be a better Lions performance and the effect of those air miles that might prevent a sixth all-New Zealand final.

PS Apologies for no column last week, but I took my family somewhere sunny for the school holidays. Aloha!

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