In the Super Rugby semi-finals the NSW Waratahs could not overcome the effects of travel and playing at an unfamiliar altitude, but gave the Lions a good scare. The Crusaders in New Zealand, meanwhile, rolled right over the Hurricanes towards what looks like an inevitable win.
In the first game in New Zealand the Crusaders made the Hurricanes – who were the second best team in the competition – look like boys playing against men. The Cantabrians rushed the visitors in defence and were ruthless in attack, while the Hurricanes – spearheaded by All Blacks five-eighth Beauden Barrett – had no answers. In the end, the 30-12 score line was flattering to the visitors.
The Waratahs and Lions match in Johannesburg was far more of a contest, even though the score of 44-26 doesn’t look like it. The Waratahs knew that they would have to get ahead early, before the lung-bursting effect of playing at altitude kicked in, and they took a 14-0 lead early on. The thin air affected more than just their fitness, however, playing havoc with Bernard Foley’s kicking game.
The Lions used their advantage in the forward pack to punish the smaller Waratahs side, and struck back hard. A trick play at a line-out on the stroke of half time from NSW saw the score 19 all at the break. Thanks to their forward pack, and particularly a number of turnovers from hooker Malcom Marx, the Lions held the advantage but were unable to capitalise until Damien Fitzpatrick – who had only come on minutes earlier – was given a yellow card with 20 minutes to go.
The combination of the Lions being used to playing at altitude, a bigger forward pack and playing 15 on 14 gave the Lions a decisive edge, and they were 3 tries ahead by the time the Waratahs got back to 15. The Tahs struck back to be down by 2 tries with 10 to go, and were throwing the kitchen sink at the Lions to try and save their season. The Lions, however, managed to score an opportunistic try with 5 to go to effectively end the game and book their tickets to Christchurch.
The Crusaders will host the final, and are expected to win comfortably. Apart from being by far the best side this year, they have not lost at all since March, and haven’t lost a home game in over 2 years. They have also hosted 20 finals matches in the 22 year history of Super Rugby and won them all, as well as contesting the grand final 12 times – of which they have won 8, including last year against the Lions in Johannesburg. They are very short-priced favourites, and will probably lift the trophy once again.