Only the one un-Australian Super Rugby match this week, but that means there’s time to look at where the Conferences are at going into the June break (albeit with one crucial kiwi derby to come next week). And with the British & Irish Lions tour of New Zealand underway, a brief look at their tour opener in Whangarei.
Crusaders 25-22 Highlanders
The Crusaders have assured themselves a top-two finish, clinching this Saturday afternoon thriller with an 82nd minute drop goal.
They were into their work early, halfback Mitchell Drummond sniping from a ruck five metres out to score in just the third minute. In the 14th minute Ryan Crotty made a huge break from a scrum set play and fed his centre partner Jack Goodhue who set winger Seta Tamanivalu away unopposed. At 12-0 inside the first quarter the Highlanders looked like they were in for a flogging.
The Highlanders never give up, though, and when Crusaders flanker Heiden Bedwell-Curtis was sin-binned in the 25th minute they ramped up the pressure. Winger Richard Buckman found himself on the end of two wonderful passes from the Smiths, Marty Banks nailing the extras and adding three more just after the half hour mark for 12-10.
Bedwell-Curtis marked his return from the bin by capitalising on some good work by Goodhue to score, Richie Mo’unga’s conversion making it 19-10 at half time.
The Highlanders looked to have scored almost immediately after the break but the touchie had his flag out and the TMO confirmed that a player had indeed stepped on the line as he unloaded. It scarcely mattered, though, as wing Waisake Naholo pounced a a dropped ball inside the 22, toed it into the in-goal, and won the race to the ball.
Less than five minutes later Naholo was in again, pulling off an intercept and racing 75 metres to score. Banks’ conversion put the Highlanders in front for the first time in the match, 22-19, with half an hour remaining.
Between the tries the Highlanders lost captain Ben Smith who landed face first and was dazed to the point referee Glen Jackson insisted he go off and have an HIA. He took no further part in the game which will be concerning for All Blacks fans and management as it’s his second concussion this season.
Both sides threw the proverbial kitchen sink at one another but neither could break through, the Highlanders coming close but being called back when a pass drifted forward. Into the last five minutes replacement Crusaders 5/8 Mitchell Hunt levelled the scores with a penalty. He then had a chance to win it from a contentious call two minutes from time but missed.
Two minutes into extra time Hunt dropped back into the pocket, the Crusaders took one more hit up and passed it to Hunt. From 35m he banged it straight over the black dot and was immediately mobbed by his ecstatic team mates.
The win is the Crusaders’ 14th of the season, an unprecedented feat, and ensures that they finish on top of the New Zealand Conference even if they lose their last match against the Hurricanes in July.
Tries: Drummond, Tamanivalu, Bedwell-Curtis.
Cons: Mo’unga 2
Drop goal: Hunt
Yellow Card: Bedwell-Curtis
Tries: Buckman, Naholo 2
Cons: Banks 2
With just next week’s Hurricanes v Chiefs match to be played before the June international window, here’s how the three non-Australian conferences are shaping up.
There were no matches for South African teams this week ahead of the Springboks v France series (and no more until the weekend of 30 June) but all three African qualifiers are locked in.
Africa 1 is made up of three bottom-six teams and the Stormers who last year qualified without playing the kiwi sides, and will do so again having been beaten by four of them. They’ll likely be seeded third and whichever of the kiwis comes sixth will fancy their chances of emulating the Chiefs, 60-21 winners in Cape Town last year.
Africa 2 will be won by the Lions, who will also win the Group, with the Sharks runners-up and African Group wildcard. The Lions will be seeded first or second depending on results in the New Zealand Conference (see below), and the Sharks probably seventh and taking on the second seeds where it’s difficult to see them progressing.
NEW ZEALAND CONFERENCE
The Crusaders win on Saturday ensured that they’ll finish top of the Conference. The Hurricanes can still draw level on points should they rack up bonus point wins in their two remaining games, but matches won is the first tie-breaker giving the unbeaten Crusaders the edge over the twice-beaten Hurricanes.
The Chiefs big win over the Waratahs keeps them in touch with the Hurricanes, with the two set to meet this week. The big prize for finishing Conference runner-up and fifth overall is a Quarter Final matchup with the Australian Conference winner. The Highlanders meanwhile seem likely to qualify eighth overall as the Sharks have a game in hand.
PREDICTED QUARTER FINALS
1. Crusaders or Lions v 8. Highlanders
2. Lions or Crusaders v 7. Sharks
3. Stormers v 6. Chiefs or Hurricanes
4. Australian Conference winners, The Brumbies v Hurricanes or Chiefs
Meanwhile the British & Irish Lions kicked off their tour of New Zealand against a Barbarians side drawn from the 14 Mitre 10 Cup provinces and including one player from the amateur Heartland Championship.
British & Irish Lions 13-7 Provincial Barbarians
This was a match the Lions were expected to win comprehensively but instead they played like a side that only arrived in New Zealand on Wednesday. Rusty doesn’t do justice to how bad some of their play was. That said, centre Ben Te’o and No. 8 Taulape Faletau put in solid shifts, the latter stopping a certain try with a stunning ball-and-all tackle in the in-goal, and a disastrous loss was averted. The result will, however, have given the Blues considerable hope of rolling the tourists on Wednesday night.
Full match report: http://www.nzherald.co.nz/rugby/news/article.cfm?c_id=80&objectid=11869138
Just the one un-Australian Super Rugby match this week, but it’s another cracker:
Hurricanes v Chiefs
17:35* Friday 9 June
Plus two Lions tour matches:
Blues v Lions
17:35 Wednesday 7 June
Crusaders v Lions
17:35 Saturday 10 June
*times are AEST.