Seven sides still in the semi-final mix
May 10, 2009
The Waratahs celebrate their battling victory over the Sharks in Durban © Getty Images
The leading sides in the Super 14 participated in their own version of musical chairs this weekend.
The penultimate round of matches saw its share of casualties as the Blues were tipped out of contention while the Chiefs toppled the Hurricanes to briefly occupy top spot before the Bulls elbowed them aside with victory over the Cheetahs. The South African side rode on the coat tails of flying winger Bryan Habana, who scored an intercept try in the final moments to ensure a bonus point 29-20 victory in Pretoria.
That promoted the 2007 champions to 42 points, one ahead of the Chiefs, who had much to thank Stephen Donald for as the fly-half contributed all their points in an intense 16-8 win over the Hurricanes in Hamilton. The Hurricanes are third on 39 points, one of seven teams vying for a semi-finals berth with the final round deciding the pecking order next weekend.
The Crusaders remain very much alive and threatening, a bonus point 32-12 win over the Queensland Reds in Christchurch last Friday leaving them on 37 points, the same as the ACT Brumbies, who put away a poor Blues team 37-15 in Canberra last night. The Blues subsequently fell to ninth place to tumble out of the equation, a fate the Waratahs avoided thanks to a hard fought 16-12 success over the Sharks in Durban. The Waratahs and Sharks are now level pegging on 36 points, and need wins next weekend and hope other results also fall their way to squeeze into the last four.
But the fate of the remaining title hopefuls rests largely in their own hands, with the Bulls to play the Sharks, the Chiefs will host the Brumbies, the Hurricanes are away to the Reds in Brisbane, the Crusaders head to Auckland to put the Blues out of their misery and the Waratahs complete their South African gig against the Lions.
After a slow start to the campaign, New Zealand franchises threaten to fill at least two of the semi-finals spots. The Highlanders were no longer an option a while back and they continue to struggle in the home straight, a flat second-half performance dooming them to a 22-27 reverse to the Lions in Johannesburg.
For the Blues, too, the season cannot end fast enough, and just for good measure Australian international Stirling Mortlock enjoyed twisting the knife last night as he became the highest points scorer in Super rugby history.
The Wallabies captain moved past former All Blacks and Crusaders pivot Andrew Mehrtens' record of 990 points when he scored a converted try just after halftime to spark the Brumbies' win. His total haul of a try, two conversions and penalty was enough to pass Mehrtens after he started the game eight points behind.
The match did not end so well for Mortlock, who left the field injured midway through the second half when he came off second best after tackling Blues prop Tony Woodcock.
Donald was every bit as influential last night, his raking tactical kicking enabling the Chiefs to blunt the Hurricanes' best intentions at Waikato Stadium. He landed three penalties to ensure his team led 9-8 at the interval despite the visitors enjoying much the better of the first half, then scored a fine try when he slipped one tackle before stepping fullback Cory Jane to extend the Chiefs' advantage.
It was the Chiefs' first win over the Hurricanes in five years and their eighth win in nine matches this term as coach Ian Foster moved a step closer to guiding his under-achieving franchise on to the unfamiliar semi-finals stage.
"The loudest cheer at a rugby game, away from social media gimmicks, pumping music and pyrotechnics will always be for a try." Tom Hamilton on the Twickenham atmosphere
"The only thing that will stop this England team from becoming a great team is themselves. They need to ask themselves 'what can we be?'" The Phil Vickery column
The latest Monday Maul looks at the hectic final weekend, the Lions hangover, the superb Mike Brown and the 'selfie'
"At the crux of this England team is a lack of fear, they are not afraid to throw playbooks out of the window." Tom Hamilton reports from Twickenham