The last week of the Super 14 confirmed both semi-finals will be hosted in South Africa!
The Bulls finished top of the log, whilst the Stormers deserved their second place finish and first home semi-final in 11 years.
Both the Waratahs and Crusaders showed that experience plays a large part in making the play-offs, and have consistently been involved at the business end of the season over numerous years. Whilst the top 2 sides definitely deserve the home advantage, I still feel that none of the other sides bar the Crusaders (and Reds for half the competition) were really worthy of semi-final spots with inconsistency and poor rugby for much of the duration of the season.
The rest of the sides were sorted into some sort of order but does it really matter. They are all also-rans and the much vaunted more attractive attacking rugby that we were promised with the new law interpretations in my mind didn't eventuate. It doesn't matter so much what the laws are, the attitude of the sides is the most important feature. I favour simpler laws which leave room for interpretation and player frustration more than anything else, whilst still ensuring a contest for the ball.
Crusaders (40) v Brumbies (22)
The Crusaders put three consecutive losses behind them and despite a long trip back from Pretoria, looked the more determined and conditioned side in the first virtual quarter-final.
From the opening whistle the Crusaders forwards dominated the contact points and that allowed their backs to get on the front foot and gain momentum. The linking between the Crusaders backs and forwards was impressive, and they attacked through the middle with their forwards and went wide with their wingers to keep the Brumbies defence guessing.
Colin Slade at fullback has been mighty impressive in my mind, hitting the line well and creating space for his wingers. That's creating numerous opportunities and the Crusaders are running into form at the right time.
The Brumbies as they have for much of the season just haven't been able to front for the tougher matches and their backline hasn't been able to breach the advantage line and get their phase play working effectively.
The Crusaders now face another tough trip to Soweto at altitude in South Africa. Whilst they have travelled and won semis away from home before, surely the travel has to take its toll?
Waratahs (32) v Hurricanes (16)
The Hurricanes failed to turn up as they were outplayed by a hungry, determined Waratahs side. Almost everything the Waratahs tried came off, and they confidently put the Hurricanes hope to rest.
The Hurricanes defence managed to hold for long periods, and one can only deduce that the long periods of defending wore the side down as whenever they had the ball, errors handed it straight back to the Waratahs. Mind you losing inspirational skipper Andrew Hore to injury in the first half took much of the experience and leadership from the Hurricanes pack and they looked clueless with his departure.
The question now is can the Waratahs produce a similar performance away from home against the Stormers?
Sharks (27) v Force (22)
The Sharks once again failed to ignite but with a resolute defence kept the Force side out to secure a tight win.
The Sharks have only managed one 4 try bonus point all season which is where their woes begin. It places a lot of pressure on their defence when the side is incapable of scoring more than 30 points, but they've defended with plenty of passion and intensity. It has kept the opposition in the hunt, and in this match the Sharks were not able to build a substantial lead which kept both sides in the hunt.
The Sharks will be happy to have won 7 out of their last 8 matches, but have they really progressed much this season?
Blues (30) v Chiefs (22)
Despite travelling back from South Africa the Blues were able to gain greater forward ascendency and the upper hand against a Chiefs side depleted by injury.
The Blues did most of the attacking but both sides were guilty of errors which robbed the match of momentum. The Blues were able to open a lead and it was only a late try to the Chiefs that gave the scoreline some respectability. For last year's finalist's, the Chiefs were a large disappointment as they managed just 1 win in 10 games after their initial 3 matches.
Reds (38) v Highlanders (36)
In front of a large Brisbane audience the Reds gave their fans something to cheer about with their best finish in 8 years.
The Reds started off brilliantly from the opening whistle and were able to post 4 first half tries to go into half time with the lead. After the break the Highlanders showed they are not a side that gives in easily and produced a second half fightback that gained them the lead with seconds remaining.
The Reds produced a late try and conversion to gain a 2 point lead. The Highlanders then had to keep the ball alive and were awarded a penalty inside their own half that they strangely elected to kick. It was too ambitious a kick with Israel Dagg coming up short when I felt working the ball upfield could have opened up the possibility of a try or drop goal if a penalty was not able to be earnt.
Cheetahs (59) v Lions (10)
The Cheetahs thoroughly deserved their fifth win of the season for their best super 14 finish whilst the Lions showed they can plummet to new depths of despair.
The Cheetahs dominated all over the park with almost 70 of possession and 9 tries to show for their effort. The Lions showed little interest in defending, and their skill right across the field was an embarassment. At least replacement loose forward Jonathan Mokuena produced a solid performance but he was a lone figure.
The Lions ended with a points difference of -315. Their 72 tries conceded (19 more than their closest rival) was over 5.5 per game which made them a walking bonus point for their opposition. If I was on the president's council of SARU I'd boot them out as they are a disgrace to the union and don't deserve a spot ahead of the Southern Kings.
Stormers (38) v Sharks (10)
The Stormers totally dominated the match against a Bulls 'B' side from the opening exchanges until they made massive substitutions later in the game. An inexperienced Bulls side needed to start well, and the Stormers were able to use their greater experience to hold the ball and play a territory based game that put the Bulls side under tremendous pressure.
I felt ref Jonathan Kaplan was a little one sided, and the constant stream of penalties allowed the Stormers plenty of possession and they used it superbly to build phases and pressure. The danger when the game gets so easy is losing your focus, and the Stormers were brilliant in maintaining the intensity they lacked the previous week.
Juan de Jongh has been brilliant all season at tidying up loose ball and getting the Stormers going forward when needed and allowing space for Jaque Fourie and his fellow outside backs to move.
The interplay between the Stormers forwards and backs has been awesome at times this season. They just need to make sure they can produce that sort of performance every week if they want to win the Super 14.
The Bulls performance was largely irrelevant given that so many of their players were rested, but they tried gamely and the players will only be wiser for the experience. Pedrie Wannenburg was awesome carrying the ball up all day, and Gerrit-Jan van Velze showed his enormous promise as a loose forward. Tiger Mangweni was solid as the last line of defence and showed the Bulls can afford to rest Zane Kirchner is needed next season. Chiliboy Ralepelle also showed hi potential when he came on later in the game as a replacement.
If the 2 sides meet later in a final at Soweto, don't expect this match to have too much relevance although I'm sure the Bulls will not be happy to have given up their 5 year winning record over the Stormers.