The Semi Finalists for 2017 have been found with each of the “real” top four in terms of overall table points winning their respective Quarter Final (critics of the four-conference model will no doubt point out that one of them accrued those points without having to play any of the other three).
HURRICANES 35-16 BRUMBIES IN CANBERRA
Despite playing possibly the best rugby by an Aussie team against a New Zealand team in the first half, the Brumbies went down by 19 points to the defending champs.
The Brumbies got off to a flyer, putting the Hurricanes under immense early pressure. They kept it up throughout the first half and went into the break with a 1-point lead. It would have been larger if not for the Canes scoring one of the freakiest tries ever after the ball ricocheted off the head of Ben May.
The Hurricanes came out firing in the second half, and when combined with some poor kicking by the Brumbies, were able to run away with the game.
CRUSADERS 17-0 HIGHLANDERS IN CHRISTCHURCH
The Crusaders booked their semi final berth with a near-flawless display of wet weather rugby. It wasn’t pretty, the ball barely making it past 5/8 Richie Mo’unga, but it gave them 60% territory and 70% possession as their All Black-laden pack ground the visitors into submission.
The Highlanders conceded seven first-half penalties, the first of which saw flanker Liam Squire sin-binned for a high shot on Mo’unga who recovered to take an easy three points. He was off-target in the 19th and 27th minutes, unable to get a solid plant on a surface soaked by 48 hours of heavy rain that caused flooding across the South Island and delayed the Highlanders’ arrival in Christchurch from 24 hours before kickoff to just six.
The Crusaders scored two tries in the half, the first after 32 minutes with No. 8 Kieran Read adjudged to have grounded the ball on the line under a pile of bodies, the other after 40 when hooker Codie Taylor was driven over from close range. Mo’unga converted both, the first from near the touchline, for a decisive 17-0 lead at the break. It has to be said that there was more than a hint of doubt about the first grounding, referee Angus Gardner being poorly positioned to award it.
The second half was scoreless. The Highlanders improved their discipline, conceding only two further penalties, enjoyed more possession and territory, but were unable to crack the Crusaders suffocating defence. In the end they were guilty of kicking away too much possession, initiating kicking duels they were never going to win and consequently playing half the match within 40 metres of their own line.
LIONS 23-21 SHARKS IN JOHANNESBURG
The Lions really left it until the last minute to seal their semi-final spot, with a 2-point win over the Sharks, a long-range penalty to Ruan Combrinck giving them the win.
The Lions opened the scoring through a penalty to Jantjies. The Sharks then looked to have the upper hand for much of the half, scoring a try in the 11th minute through Jacobus Van Wyk. They were able to stifle the Lions attack, competing fiercely at the breakdown and forcing errors. Jantjies was having an off day with the boot, missing a couple of early shots at goal. Bosch, meanwhile, stretched the Sharks lead further with a field goal in the 17th minute.
The Sharks stretched their lead going into the break, after a successful penalty from Bosch, the Sharks leading 14-3 at half time.
The Sharks went down to 14 men 6 minutes into the half, when Stephan Lewies was shown yellow for offside after repeated warnings. The lions took full advantage of the extra man, with Franco Mostert and Jaco Kriel both scoring tries in the 1-minute period. Jantjies poor kicking continued, missing both conversions meaning the Sharks still had a slight lead.
That changed when Lionel Mapoe crossed the line after a quick tap in their own half. Jantjies didn’t miss this time, giving the Lions a 20-14 lead. The Sharks weren’t done yet though, and went on the attack. Mostert was shown yellow for deliberately bringing down the maul and from the resulting scrum Daniel du Preez scored. Bosch converted to give the Sharks a 1-point lead with 13 minutes left.
With less than 2 minutes left on the clock Lwazi Mvovo was penalised for offside. Combrink didn’t hesitate in pointing to the posts and nailed the shot, giving the Lions a 2-point lead. They held onto the ball from the kick off, playing out the final minute of the match before sending the ball into the stands.
CHIEFS 17-11 STORMERS IN CAPE TOWN
A late try got the Chiefs home at Newlands but it was a far cry from the 60-21 blowout in the corresponding match last year.
A scoreless first quarter saw each side probing the others defence but unable to find a way through. Stormers fullback SP Marais broke the deadlock in the 22nd minute with a penalty. His Chiefs opposite Damian McKenzie replied in kind from 45 metres after 30 and added further penalties in the 33rd and 39th minutes, both from much closer range, for a 9-3 half time lead.
Stormers flanker Siya Kolisi scored the first try after 46 minutes, the Chiefs defence finally running out of numbers after multiple phases. McKenzie added a fourth penalty, again from well inside the 22 as the Stormers penalty count mounted.
A questionable, TMO-initiated yellow card to Chiefs flanker Sam Cane for what appeared nothing more than the head clash Peyper called, allowed Marais to close the gap to one with 20 remaining. Chiefs 5/8 Aaron Cruden threw a beautiful cutout pass to replacement wing Shaun Stevenson who scored the match-winner with his first touch, McKenzie unable to convert.
Crusaders v Chiefs in Christchurch – 17:35 (AEST) Saturday
History says that no-one has won a playoff match in South Africa one week then another in Australasia the following week. It also tells us the Chiefs won both previous Semi Finals between the two, 20-17 in 2012 and 20-19 in 2013, albeit both were in Hamilton. Most recently the two met in Round 13, the Crusaders winning 31-24. The overall record is 17-13 in favour of the Crusaders, including 8-5 at home.
Lions v Hurricanes in Johannesburg – (To Be Confirmed)
A rematch of the 2016 Grand Final, won 20-3 by the Hurricanes, but this time it’s them crossing the Indian Ocean. That’s the only time the two have met in Finals footy, and they didn’t play each other in the 2017 regular season. Overall they’ve met 18 times with the Hurricanes winning 15 including all nine played at their various home venues.
Potential Grand Finals are Lions v Crusaders or Chiefs in Johannesburg, Crusaders v Hurricanes in Christchurch, and Hurricanes v Chiefs in Wellington. No-one has ever won a Grand Final playing on the “wrong” side of the Indian Ocean.