The Southern Hemisphere’s most illustrious club rugby union competition has moved into the sharp end of the tournament, and with the final in sight it was guaranteed that none of the four teams involved in this year's semi-finals would be giving an inch to their opponents.
The first of these two enticing clashes was the Crusaders up against the Sharks, while the second saw the Brumbies—who knocked out the 2012 and 2013 winners the Chiefs in the previous round—battle it out for a spot in the final with the Waratahs.
Here’s a look at how the matches panned out, as the four teams involved looked to lengthen their pursuit of glory in the 2014 Super 15.
Crusaders 38-6 Sharks
In semi-final games, there can often be a temptation to come flying out of the traps all guns blazing. But often in these types of clashes, it’s the most composed and most measured of the two sides that can think the most clearly and subsequently come out on top.
That’s the message that the Sharks’ coach Jake White looked to drill into his players ahead of this massive clash with the seven-time champions, urging his team to play to its strengths, per The National:
We’ve got a great scrum, we’ve got a good set piece and we’ve obviously got some backs that we can finish when we turn some ball over, so it’ll be the same that has been working for us.
In knockout rugby you have to go back to what works for you and we have done those things consistently.
But in the opening stages of this semi-final, the Sharks looked nervous and blunt. And when you’re toiling against a team like the Crusaders, they’ll typically punish you.
The New Zealand outfit played with a maturity and a swagger throughout the semi-final, signalling their intent extremely early on by forcing a line-out in the Sharks’ half within the first minute of the match. In truth, it'd prove to be an apt indicator for the rest of the game.
Eventually, that line-out would yield a penalty, and Dan Carter slotted the ball over to give Crusaders a 3-0 lead after three minutes. The Sharks were doing their utmost to stem the flow of Crusaders attacks, and although they were looking a little ragged at times, the defensive industry of Marcell Coetzee was once again very impressive, as noted here by Rob Houwing of Sport24.co.za:
Once the Sharks had possession, though, they were kicking the ball away far too frequently. Just to compound matters, their kicks weren’t accurate, either, and they paid the ultimate price in the 14th minute.
Paul Jordaan gave away possession with a poor kick before he missed a tackle on his opponent. But credit must go to the Crusaders, who finished the score with a fine move; Kieran Read was the man to apply the finishing touches, and Carter slotted the conversion to give the Crusaders a 10-point lead.
Former Springbok international Breyton Paulse bemoaned the Sharks' insistence on kicking away possession:
Initially, the Sharks responded well, getting their first points on the board courtesy of a penalty from Pat Lambie in the 22nd minute. But the 10-point buffer was restored by Carter when the Crusaders won a penalty and the All Blacks fly-half knocked it over. Both sides added another penalty each before the break, giving the Crusaders a 16-6 lead at half-time.
South African cricketer Herschelle Gibbs offered the Sharks some advice on how they might potentially haul their way back into the game:
But with the second half barely started, the jig was all but up for the Sharks. The ball was worked out to the powerful Fijian winger Nemani Nadolo, and he went over to put the Crusaders 21-6 ahead; Carter was unable to add the extra points, though.
By this point, the Sharks were noticeably drained, and as their opponents set up camp in the South Africans' half of the field, another score was inevitable. It came in the 70th minute, as Willi Heinz capitalised on some poor scrummaging from the Sharks to sneak in and go over. Carter added the extra two to make it 28-6 with 12 minutes remaining.
It was damage limitation for the Sharks at this point, but the Crusaders seemingly had little intention of taking their foot off the throat of their opponents. They ran in their fourth try of the day after capitalising on yet another aimless kick from the Sharks. Johnny McNicholl was the man who finished it off before Carter's missed kick left the score on 33-6.
And with three minutes remaining, just when it looked as though the punishment was done, things got even worse. The Crusaders set up a rolling maul to batter their way through the Sharks defence, and Matt Todd bundled over the line to make the score 38-6. Carter again pushed his kick wide though.
SuperSport's Sias du Plessis summed it all up perfectly:
For the Sharks this was indisputably their worst performance of the entire campaign. They were anxious, sloppy and completely lacked invention throughout the entire 80 minutes. The Crusaders, by comparison, relished the big occasion, and their five tries were a measure of their clinical edge in front of the posts.
Waratahs 26-8 Brumbies
The Waratahs hosted the Brumbies in the second semi-final. Prior to the match, Tahs coach Michael Cheika urged his men to play without the apprehension that has seen this team come up short of the final in the last three seasons.
Per Steven Orme of Sportal.com, Cheika said the criticism that has come his team's way is warranted, but that they must rise above it:
If you worry about too much of that parochialism you'll get caught up and you'll forget about what you need to do in the game. We understand that we've been on the receiving end (of criticism) over the years and it's warranted because we haven't delivered, but here's a chance for us.
The Waratahs began like a team who had heeded the words of their coach, and just three minutes into the game they had their first try. The Brumbies looked a little overwhelmed by the occasion and Alofa Alofa was able to capitalise on a loose ball to give his team the lead.
Kicking for the Waratahs, Bernard Foley was unable to add the extra two points. But in the 22nd minute he was able to make amends, tucking away a penalty to give his team an eight point lead.
Rugby writer Alex Broun commented on how physical the game was in the early stages:
The Brumbies are a fine side, though, and there was always going to be a spell in the match where they came roaring back. And they did exactly that in the second half of the first period. Henry Speight went over with 10 minutes left in the first half, and with just one minute remaining on the clock, Christian Lealiifano slotted over a penalty to level things up.
Here's Speight celebrating his try, courtesy of the Super Rugby account:
But somewhat crucially, Foley was able to wrestle back the initiative from the visitors, giving his side a shot of momentum going into half time by knocking over a penalty on the hooter. It was 11-8 at the break.
Buoyed by that score before the interval, the Tahs came out firing early in the second half, putting pressure on their opponents and forcing them into cheap mistakes. And in the 48th minute, Kurtley Beale capitalised on a massive tackle from Adam Ashley-Cooper to bundle the ball over the try line. Foley was unable to convert, meaning the Waratahs had a 16-8 lead going into the final knockings of the game.
To make things even more difficult for the Brumbies, Speight limped out of the game in what was a huge blow for his side, as noted here by the Super Rugby account:
With the end of the game in sight, the supporters inside the Allianz Stadium were rallying behind their team. And it's little wonder that the noise levels were so high, as noted by the Waratahs' official Twitter account:
Naturally, the Waratahs came under some huge pressure in the latter stages of the match, as the Brumbies pressed for a score to get them back in the game. But the home side were buoyed by their support and clung on. When they did finally get out of their own 22, the Tahs earned a penalty which was slotted home by Foley to make it 19-8 with seven minutes remaining.
But the home supporters were sent into rapturous delirium just a couple of minutes later, as Foley ran in a try and slotted the subsequent conversion to give the Waratahs an insurmountable 26-8 lead and set up what promises to be an encapsulating final against the Crusaders.