By Roger Childs
Last weekend saw the penultimate round of matches with teams vying for positions in the finals. The top four teams all get home advantage in the quarter finals and this group won’t change in Round 15 next week. The Chiefs, Crusaders, Blues and Brumbies are sitting pretty.
The Hurricanes and Waratahs will stay in fifth and sixth, but the remaining two quarter finalists see five teams in contention.
The weekend’s matches saw four New Zealand franchises win and four Australian teams lose.
Highlanders v Reds in Dunedin
A win for the southern team would see them sneak into eighth place, while victory for the Queensland franchise would cement their seventh position. The Reds were the better team for three quarters of the match and had a 14-0 early on. But in the final quarter the home team came roaring back. With time up on the clock, the Highlanders, down 28-30, had a scrum feed 15 metres from the Reds line. Instead of passing out to the backline on the left, replacement half back Folau Fakatava raced round on the blind-side to score in the corner. The conversion went over to give the southerners the victory 35-30 and eighth place on the table — for now.
Rebels v Force in Melbourne
The Perth-based team had beaten the best Australian franchise, the Brumbies, at home last weekend, and a win over the struggling Rebels in Melbourne would elevate them to seventh on the table. It was not to be as the home teams smashed them 52-14.
Fiji Drua v Moana Pasifika in Lautoka
The local team needed a win to be in contention for a quarter final place and the visitors were after their first victory of the season. In an exciting, high-scoring match featuring plenty of fast open play with excellent passing and handling, 14 tries were scored – seven apiece. The Drua led 47-41 as full time approached when Moana Pasifika scored wide out. A successful conversion by Christian Leali’ifano would have given the visitors the much coveted victory, but unfortunately it wasn’t to be.
Crusaders v Waratahs in Christchurch
This match was expected to be won easily by the home team and so it proved. The Crusaders were at their best much of the time and All Black first five Richie Mo-unga was in top form. Unfortunately David Havili and Cullen Grace made it 17 injuries for the season and in that group are a number of potential All Blacks for the World Cup later in the year.
However, the victory for the Christchurch-based team cemented their second place on the table, so they are guaranteed a home quarter-final.
Blues v Highlanders in Auckland
The Hurricanes had to win to claim fourth place on the table but they let themselves down. A combination of appalling lineout throwing – six were lost to the Blues — poor goal kicking and numerous infringements saw them lose 25-36. For the home side star right winger Mark Telia scored an incredible four tries. Hurricanes captain Ardie Savea had an impressive game but too many mistakes and lost possession put paid to any chance of an upset victory by the capital franchise.
Brumbies v Chiefs
This was the long-awaited clash between the best teams from each conference. Visiting sides always find it hard to win at fortress Canberra but the Chiefs were determined to show why they are comfortably top of the table. They started well when number eight Luke Jacobson ran 45 metres from the base of the scrum on the left flank to score in the corner. The visitors never looked like losing from this time on and ran out the winners 31-21. It could have been 38 -21 but a dubious refereeing decision ruled out an excellent “try” by replacement half back Cortez Ratima.
The Chiefs’ defence was very strong when it mattered and they score four very good tries including one to Shaun Stephenson – his twelfth of the season. The victory gives them an unassailable seven point lead at the top of the table.
One round to go
Regardless of the results, next weekend’s matches will see no change in the top four. The Chiefs, Crusaders, Blues and Brumbies will host quarter finals. Their opponents will be the Hurricanes and the Waratahs for sure, but five tens are in contention for the last two quarter final spots – the Reds, Highlanders, Force, Drua and Rebels. Plenty to play for in Round 15 for these franchises.