Despite a lopsided, illogical conference system, the best four teams have advanced to the Super Rugby semifinals. As the New Zealand conference was easily the toughest and strongest of the four, it is justified that three Kiwi sides — the Crusaders, Chiefs and Hurricanes — remain.
The Australian conference was by far the weakest, and there were no surprise that the Brumbies — despite producing their most spirited performance of the year in their quarterfinal against the Hurricanes — are not going any further. And as the South African conferences are so stacked towards ensuring there is a Springboks flavour at finals time that there was no other option but for one of their sides, the Lions, to make it.
The standout team remains the Crusaders. Even though the Lions finished on top of the Super Rugby ladder with a solitary loss in 15 games, they cannot claim to be the best side because their match schedule was a doddle compared with that of the Crusaders.
The ability of openside ‘fetchers’ to dominate the breakdown could be a thing of the past, after World Rugby rubberstamped three new amendments as part of an overhaul to the game’s laws set to commence next month.
While the Crusaders, also suffering only one loss before the finals, were subjected to endlessly confronting Kiwi derbies, the Lions had the luxury of a ridiculously easy draw that did not include any New Zealand opponents and was instead cluttered with deadbeat teams. The Crusaders’ feat in finishing first in the New Zealand conference far exceeds anything the Lions have done this season.
The Crusaders’ quarterfinal triumph over the Highlanders was also far superior to the other three weekend victories. They were dealt with the worst conditions, confronted by the most antagonistic of opponents, and handled this with an exceptional effort in the wet. It was one of those miserable Christchurch nights that visiting teams dread — driving rain, mist, and a migraine-inducing chill that shatters the body.
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So bad were the conditions that the Highlanders could not get to Christchurch until the day of the game due to the dreadful weather. Blunders had to be excused, as the playing conditions were so unforgiving. Despite this, the Crusaders hardly made a mistake. Handling errors were minimal. Wrong options were rare.
If this match had involved an Australian team — those fumbling masters of looking stupid in perfect match conditions — it would have been the most horrible of rugby marathons involving one scrum after another due to the endless knock-ons and spills. The only way to end it would have been for the groundsmen to turn off the lights.
But the Crusaders and Highlanders — South Island teams weaned from an early age on such conditions — were up to it, and in the home team’s case- seemed to revel in playing in the slush. They also succeeded in strangling the Highlanders, thwarting their fast, often creative, work from broken play with a stunning defensive performance. The Highlanders are great accumulators of points, and their failure to get one in the semifinal is a tribute to a special Crusaders team who focused on keeping the ball within the forwards, working tight from the ruck and forcing their opponents back with deep, accurate kicks.
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Scott Robertson, in his first season with the Crusaders, is without doubt the Super Rugby coach of the year, as this one-time Super Rugby powerhouse franchise is once again playing as a cohesive team. They have their fair-share of superstars, but also numerous lesser-knowns. It is blatantly clear that they all believe in each other, and play for each other. That comes from good coaching and good preparation.
The Chiefs’ defeat of the Stormers in Cape Town is also worthy of high praise, as it is no easy feat to travel halfway around the world in a few days and be on top of your faculties. But the Chiefs showed few effects of jet-lag when they continued their trend of playing with pace and width.
Their problem is that the Chiefs now must do a U-turn and travel all the way back again to Christchurch. Bleary eyes are going to be a major factor next Saturday night — which will see the Crusaders raging semifinal favourites.
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The Hurricanes — who had to fight and fight to overcome the Brumbies — are on their way to Johannesburg, and a semifinal they could easily win. The Lions’ victory over the Sharks was underwhelming, and with the Hurricanes they will encounter something they have hardly sighted this season — a quality opponent.
A Crusaders-Hurricanes Super Rugby final would be the most fitting finale as they have been the two best sides of the competition, each subjected to the hardest draw.
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Kiwis spare SANZAAR finals embarrassment
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