A semis line-up to make a Kiwi mom proud

The Star Early Edition - - SPORT -

MEL­BOURNE: If the Su­per Rugby quar­ter-fi­nals 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 semi-fi­nals, show­ing their abil­ity to win tough and ugly, whether in bi­b­li­cal weather con­di­tions or in hos­tile ter­ri­tory.

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.

The Chiefs then made it three-outof-three for New Zealand by wear­ing down the Storm­ers 17-11 in a dour two-try bat­tle in Cape Town.

“It wasn’t pretty,” said out­go­ing coach Dave Rennie, whose de­par­ture will be de­layed un­til at least next week’s semi-fi­nal against the Cru­saders.

Jo­han­nes­burg’s 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 next week in a re­peat of last year’s ti­tle-decider.

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 play-offs with an er­ror-strewn dis­play against the Sharks.

It took a 55-me­tre penalty kick from winger Ruan Com­brinck in the fi­nal two min­utes for the Lions to win.

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 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. 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 front. If we do that, then we can get our game go­ing and hope­fully nul­lify theirs.”

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 op­po­nents.

Aus­tralian rugby has been mired in gloom over the com­mit­ment, as yet un­de­liv­ered, to cull ei­ther the Mel­bourne Rebels or the West­ern Force from the com­pe­ti­tion next year when it con­tracts to 15 teams.

But a crowd of less than 10 000 turned up to watch the quar­ter-fi­nal in Can­berra and sup­port a lo­cal team with a guar­an­teed fu­ture.

It was a dis­ap­point­ing turn-out for a match which dou­bled as a farewell to coach and club stal­wart Stephen Larkham and a cel­e­bra­tion of for­mer Wal­laby Chris­tian Leali­ifano’s re­turn af­ter his di­ag­no­sis with leukaemia less than a year ago.

“If that’s not the most damn­ing ev­i­dence of just how far the game has fallen then I don’t know what is,” a writer in the lo­cal Can­berra Times news­pa­per lamented. – Reuters

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