Chiefs, Brumbies to meet in Super Rugby final
WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) — The Chiefs will defend their Super Rugby final against the ACT Brumbies after both teams defied underdog status on Saturday to win tension-packed semifinals.
The Hamilton-based Chiefs will host next Saturday’s final after coming from behind to beat seven-time champions the Crusaders 20-19 in a match in which the Crusaders started as overwhelming favorites.
The Brumbies, under former Springboks coach Jake White, overcame even greater odds to snatch a 26-23 win over the Pretoria-based Bulls with a 79th minute try on the Bulls’ home ground at Pretoria.
Saturday’s final will now see the match-up thought least likely ahead of the semifinals: the New Zealand champion Chiefs attempting to retain their title against the Australian champion Brumbies who won the most-recent of their two Super Rugby crowns in 2004.
The Crusaders have not captured the Super Rugby title since 2008, when current coach Todd Blackadder took over from Robbie Deans. Under Blackadder the Crusaders have reached the semifinals four times and the final once — losing in 2011 to the Queensland Reds — but their failure to go further again this season now places Blackadder’s future in doubt.
The Bulls won the title in 2007, 2009 and 2010, reaching the semifinals this year for the first time since their last championship victory. They weren’t expected, at the start of the season, to become the strongest team in the South African conference, instead were seen to be rebuilding after the loss of a number of senior players.
But after winning eight of their last nine regular season matches, they grabbed first place in the South African conference and a home advantage which seemed likely to be crucial in Saturday’s semifinal. Instead, the Brumbies, who traveled from Canberra where they had edged the Cheetahs 15-13 in last weekend’s quarterfinals, to Pretoria where they became the first team to beat the Bulls in a finals match in South Africa.
Both the Chiefs and Brumbies had to come from behind on Saturday to win through to the final. The Chiefs trailed 9-3 after a fast, physical but unstructured first half, then rushed to a 20-9 lead with two tries in six minutes in the middle of the second spell.
The Crusaders then rallied and closed within a point, 20-19, with six minutes to play. The Chiefs’ well-ordered and gritty defense repelled waves of Crusaders’ attacks in the final minutes of the match to secure the win, evoking memories of last year’s semifinal at Hamilton in which they beat the Crusaders 20-17.
“There was a real sense of deja vu,” Chiefs captain Craig Clarke said. “They were really throwing everything at us and there was some pretty tough scrambling. We just scrambled and scrambled. There was some pretty good defense there.”
Craig, who will leave the Chiefs at the end of the season to play in Ireland, was one of his team’s special heroes on Saturday. He helped the Chiefs address deficiencies in their lineout and scrum in the first half to hold the Crusaders and he inspired them to match the Crusaders’ physical threat in the loose. He also kept his team calm and composed as tension mounted through the second half.
The Chiefs first snatched the lead with a try to winger Lelia Masaga in the 50th minute when, after a series of fruitless raids on the Crusaders’ line by the Chiefs’ forwards, Masaga attacked the line alone, crashing through three tackles to score.
Six minutes later flyhalf Aaron Cruden intercepted a pass from Crusaders’ center Ryan Crotty, juggled the ball for a nervous moment, then dashed 40 meters to score. He converted his own try to lift his points tally for the match to 15 and to give the Chiefs a critical 11-point margin.
The Crusaders came back immediately with a try to fullback Israel Dagg but couldn’t surmount that margin as flyhalf Dan Carter missed two late penalties and a dropped goal.
“Probably the difference tonight was that the Chiefs took their two opportunities and we didn’t quite nail ours,” Blackadder said.
“I thought they were very clinical and played some very smart rugby, their back three were outstanding and once again their defense was great.”
Center Tevita Kuridrani scored the Brumbies’ second try in the 79th minute to snatch a 26-23 over the Bulls, who played in front of a crowd of more than 50,000 at Loftus Versfeld.
The Brumbies started best with fullback Jesse Mogg’s 11th-minute try helping them take a 10-0 lead after a slicing break by wing Henry Speight and a brilliant no-look pass behind his back set Mogg free.
The Bulls ground their way back into the contest through a try by JJ Engelbrecht and the boot of flyhalf Morne Steyn, who kicked 18 points and eventually put the home team ahead for the first time in the 60th minute. Steyn then gave the Bulls a four-point cushion with four minutes to play.
But the Brumbies found an attacking edge when they needed it right at the end. Kuridrani took an inside pass after a backline break and went in unopposed to the left of the posts, celebrating the winning and final-clinching score by wildly pumping his left arm in the air.
Christian Leali’ifano converted for a 16-point haul that was crucial to the Brumbies’ victory.
“Momentum comes and goes in games and you’ve just got to make sure that when it is against you it’s not costing you on the scoreboard,” Brumbies captain Ben Mowen said. “The Bulls have got an outstanding rolling maul. We scrambled so well off our lineout defense inside our 22-metres five or six times there.”