The quarterfinals were all close enough to prove a case for this final eight having earned their playoff spots on merit. After all home teams won it’s almost indisputable that the actual top four remains, a yellow card ending one contest prematurely, the closest battle being between “fourth” and fifth place qualifiers and the two teams with least round robin wins losing by the biggest margins.
But that “fourth” place team now facing an away semi leaves us with the latest annoying venue anomaly.
The weekend’s first yellow card was shown to Highlanders flanker Liam Squire for a senseless shoulder charge on his marker Whetu Douglas in Christchurch. At that stage, just three minutes into the second half, the Crusaders held a narrow three point lead.
The Highlanders had not only opened the try-scoring, a wraparound offload by centre Rob Thompson giving fullback Ben Smith an easy draw and pass to put wing Sio Tomkinson over in the left hand corner. The Southerners had seen an earlier drive by lock Jackson Hemopo disallowed for double movement and were clearly dominating territory. But they’d been working very hard to make inroads into the Crusaders defence and the home side’s reply came much more simply.
A lineout drive had the Highlanders’ heels on their own goal line when a skip pass by Richie Mo’unga picked out fullback David Havili, who dived between the uprights without a hand laid on him. The Crusaders soon followed with another when left wing George Bridge cut infield, backhand-offloaded to Douglas, who immediately switched left to Mo’unga and their second untouched try-scorer ran around behind the posts for the easiest of conversions.
The Highlanders did well to hit back, exerting enough pressure to force a five yard scrum from where the trademark long, flat bullet pass from halfback Aaron Smith gave second five Teihorangi Walden enough drifting latitude to break the usually unbeatable Jack Goodhue’s tackle. At 14-17 down and having been priced like three-legged horses by most bookies, the Highlanders would have been well pleased with their challenge at half-time.
Obviously, there’s no way Squire was given direct orders to cheap shot Douglas. He may well have been told to “cut down his space,” or some other coach-speak for dominate, because Douglas was having a conspicuously good game. Squire’s tendencies as a red-mister betrayed him again. The first time he saw Douglas within range after the restart, he aimed a shoulder rib height and launched.
In the jungle from which Squire’s ancestors too recently emerged, they don’t have slow motion cameras. Law is subject to fickle emotion, naked bloodlust being as fickle as any.
It effectively ended the game. The Crusaders scored three more tries, Douglas in one lineout drive, prop Michael Alaalatoa in another, then Mo’unga bagging his second by dispossessing Marty Banks behind the Highlanders’ line.
C’est la guerre... when you scrape into the playoffs with six wins, a predisposition to violent stupidity in your second rowers probably isn’t the only thin thread your hopes are hanging by. Tom Franklin was marched ten yards for swearing at Jaco Peyper... wew lad.
The seventh-placed Chiefs’ hopes hung on the Jaguares having a bad night on defence, just like every other team they’ve beaten this year, but in Buenos Aires this was never going to happen. Rugby players in Argentina love hard contact, it’s what made them choose rugby as their sport to begin with, in a country mad for soccer. Well, that and the innocent confusion of children, forced to endure a few too many soccer games wondering, “How come these women don’t have breasts?”
The home side’s heroic tackling wasn’t the only factor in the Chiefs’ seat-of-the-pants season coming to a disappointing end. In their very first use of the ball after kick-off, the visitors coughed up possession trying to run the ball out of their own 22. The Jaguares pounced on the loose ball and blindside flanker Pablo Matera drove over.
The only Chiefs try came from a Brad Weber break, when the halfback sold an almighty dummy to prop Mayco Vivas at the base of a ruck. Maybe Weber had been frustrated by the collision-eager Argentines not buying his more subtle earlier efforts, because either the enormity of his feint was what worked or he’d singled out the only Jaguare on the park gullible enough to buy it. With the defence finally spread-eagled, Weber found loosie Lachlan Boshier on his inside for the try.
But all subsequent scoring opportunities were blown through handling errors or being outmuscled at the breakdown. The Jaguares defended their line quite magnificently. They extended their lead after the break with a Matias Moroni try, the Chiefs by comparison being outflanked so badly by the lead-up handling that the wing was able to evade three efforts to prevent him running around behind the posts.
From there it was a straightforward blueprint for the Argentines... keep the Chiefs pinned down in long range counter-attack land, then keep separating man from ball as the visitors chased the game. The Chiefs gave their all but the Jaguares’ all was just better enough.
A remarkable string of results had put the Chiefs back into playoff contention, after not getting their first win until the fourth week of March and having blown three home advantages by then, including a loss to the Sunwolves. For their late season rally to finally collapse from exhaustion on foreign soil wasn’t a surprise, seeing as they’d already been defying the odds by not losing outside of New Zealand since February.
The Hurricanes, courtesy of the competition’s charitable playoff rules, had to face the most dangerous of foreign challengers in their quarterfinal. The Bulls were fresh from a dismantling of the Lions at Loftus, after two hard-fought draws on New Zealand grounds. Their ruck game was on song, Handre Pollard was utilizing it smoothly at ten and their pre-game tapes had identified an eminently exploitable weakness in the Hurricanes’ scrum. Everything pointed to a classic match-up of opposing styles, and that’s precisely what came about.
The Hurricanes were down an early try when centre Peter Umaga-Jensen missed his opposite Jesse Kriel and Bulls fullback Warrick Gelant scored on the left, but they replied with three of their own to lead 24-7 after half an hour. Deception in midfield put wing Wes Goosen into space and he had halfback TJ Perenara in support for the first. Wing Ben Lam proved too strong for the tackle of Rosko Specman in the second. Then a quick throw caused a fractured defensive line for replacement wing Salesi Rayasi to sail through for the third.
But their forwards were struggling to deny the Bulls possession, meaning the wild cards were able to apply heavy pressure in the Hurricanes’ half. Rayasi’s defensive shortcomings were exposed when wing Cornal Hendricks picked up a loose ball and muscled past him in the corner. Rayasi made up for this lapse with a cool-headed display of handling skill, offloading after half-time to put his forwards within a yard of the Bulls line, then taking Perenara’s quick pass to scoot over.
The youngster then blotted his copybook again by conceding a penalty try for a deliberate knock-on and sat out ten minutes in the sin bin.
The only two cards in knockout so far being New Zealanders made me once again pause to examine this nation’s disciplinary feet of clay. Rayasi’s card being for an inexperienced slap-down wasn’t nearly as bad as Squire’s thuggery, but only a less dark side of the same over-tarnished coin.
With the Hurricanes scrum being constantly shoved backwards, quarterfinal three was quickly turning into a thriller. A pinpoint kick-pass from Pollard gave Hendricks his second try and it was only well struck Jordie Barrett penalty kicks which kept the home side seven points clear... partially making up for the fullback having been done like a dinner by Hendricks.
Barrett fully paid his debt with a corner flag tackle on the other wing minutes later.
Ultimately the Hurricanes held. Two minutes into injury time, twelve phases into a patient late onslaught, Hendricks had left Rayasi flat-footed again but in doing so tragically shucked the pass from Gelant that would have set up a twenty yard dash to the line... meaning we’ll never know whether he would’ve beaten the cover tackle of Perenara for a historic hat-trick, or if Pollard would have kicked the sideline conversion to force extra time.
It was the best of the quarterfinals either way and the Hurricanes did well to escape. It takes a lot of backline strike power to counteract being dry-humped around the field by an opposing forward pack.
Looking forward to next week’s semifinal in Christchurch, the Crusaders pack isn’t likely to afford them any more leeway than the Bulls, so the Hurricanes had better hope the breakdown predations of Ardie Savea and another good night from their midfield playmakers will keep them on close enough terms to escape disaster again.
The final match of the weekend was the Sharks playing the Brumbies in Canberra, which was hardly a foregone conclusion until it became obvious the Sharks had either lost their tackling bags at the airport or hadn’t spent any lead-up time working on fringe defence.
The Brumbies scored five tries, each time breezing through untended holes beside mauls and rucks.
Two weeks ago I talked about the possibility of all five South African conference teams making the playoffs.
None from South Africa remain.
As that fine flanker Niccolo Machiavelli once said, “Your demise will be sudden and ignominious.”
The power in the words is not prophecy or threat, but warning.
We are helplessly watching the mortgagee sale of South African rugby to the producers of Marvel Comics, while their government instigates rolling electricity strikes. God bless them, I’d be wanting to stay by my family’s side rather than fly to Canberra too.
But the Sharks put their hands up as least-deserving qualifiers with this slack effort, which only isn’t rude to say because the alternative would have been either Stormers or Lions, two other African teams less easily beaten by the Brumbies in round robin... a meek-looking Lions lost in Canberra 20-31 mid comp, and Cape Town saw almost the only overseas performance of the Brumbies which didn’t suck... whichever opposition they were already lucky to face, this was a too easy let-off for the likeable but limited Brumbies, who will now travel to Buenos Aires to face the Jaguares, where for the sake of the game I pray they lose.
I’ll be glad when this protection for soft conference winners is confined to history’s dustbin, because even after the best eight teams contesting quarterfinals we’re presented with the next inevitable frustration born of illogical sequences.
The semifinal match-ups should have been based on table finish, not the winners of conference-skewed quarters.
The two surviving teams with the most points / most wins / best differential should be hosting semis but even after a week of knockout, where not only the second best team had to face the fifth but fourth best played seventh, we now have the two best teams in one semi with third and fourth contesting the other.
Preposterous, guaranteeing only one New Zealand team in the final and a near fifty-fifty chance of that final not taking place where it should... hopefully just one last spasm in the death throes of artificially-levelled playing fields, or globalism as it’s more widely known, a poison which has infected even the most noble of sports... based, with the best intentions, on an innocent canard of diversity for its own sake as strength.
Great for the charity cases, and only while those who are strong already don’t mind acceding to standards being lowered by decree.
Interestingly, we still have two merit-based final scenarios available. The Hurricanes in Argentina or the Jaguares in Christchurch are both mouth-watering prospects.
The Brumbies in Christchurch, not so much. As for the Hurricanes in Canberra, let alone them losing there, shoot me now... my next essay would at least be from Purgatory, which I wouldn’t qualify for as a suicide.
Come on Jaguares, vamos... or whatever is Spanish for “You can do it.”