Kiwi teams win ugly to storm into semifinals
Three of the rugby power’s teams are through to the semifinals, showing their ability to win tough and ugly
Melbourne — If the Super Rugby quarterfinals had a collective face, it would be one only a New Zealand mother could love.
Three of the rugby power’s teams are through to the semifinals, showing their ability to win tough and ugly, whether in biblical weather conditions or in hostile territory many time zones away.
The reigning champion Hurricanes led off with Friday’s grinding 35-16 win over the Brumbies, a team that controversially enjoyed home advantage despite winning six fewer games than their opponents during the regular season.
The Crusaders followed up by slowly choking the Highlanders to death in atrocious conditions in Christchurch, winning 17-0 by the brute force of their forwards.
The Chiefs then made it a perfect three-out-of-three for New Zealand by wearing down the Stormers 17-11 in a dour two-try battle in Cape Town later on Saturday.
"It wasn’t pretty," said outgoing coach Dave Rennie, whose departure will be delayed until at least this week’s semifinal against the Crusaders in Christchurch.
The Lions make up the final four, having survived a huge scare in beating the Sharks 23-21 at home.
They will play the Hurricanes at home this weekend in a repeat of 2016’s title-decider.
Bizarrely, it will be the South Africans’ first match against a New Zealand opponent this season due to the competition’s quirky scheduling.
The Lions topped the standings at the end of the regular season with a 14-1 record, but belied their top seeding in the playoffs with an error-strewn display against the Sharks.
It took a 55m penalty kick from winger Ruan Combrinck in the final two minutes for the Lions to fall over the line.
Had the ball landed two metres shorter, the Hurricanes might have avoided the long-haul trip to Ellis Park and hosted the Sharks at home.
But the Hurricanes, who thrashed the Lions 20-3 in the home final in 2016 after belting them in Johannesburg 50-17 earlier in the season, fear neither their opponents nor the travel.
"To play the Lions in a packed Ellis Park, I think we’d be pretty stimulated by that," coach Chris Boyd told New Zealand media on Sunday.
The Chiefs, back-to-back champions in 2012-13, may face a bigger test against the New Zealand conference-winning Crusaders, who are desperate to seal an eighth title and first since 2008.
While the driving rain at Rugby League Park played to the Crusaders’ strengths, their ability to completely shut down the Highlanders’ game will give the Chiefs’ staff plenty to think about during the week.
Under Rennie, the Chiefs have matched up well against the Crusaders and won their last three clashes in Christchurch.
The travel could ultimately prove decisive against a confident and relatively fresh opponent, however.
"I thought the [Crusaders’] pack was incredibly dominant and that’s going to be a challenge for us," said Rennie.
"But we’ve got a pretty good pack. We’ll make sure we’ve got clarity and we’ll go down there and give it a real crack.
"History counts for bugger-all. In the end, we’re going to have to front up. If we do that, then we can get our game going and hopefully nullify theirs," he said.
The Brumbies’ loss was the final nail in a dreadful season for the Australian conference which finished with a 0-26 record against New Zealand teams.
Australian rugby has been mired in gloom over the commitment to cull either the Rebels or the Western Force from the competition in 2018 when it contracts to 15 teams.