Sharks, Bulls seize last spots in Super Rugby quarters
PRETORIA, South Africa (AP) — The Sharks and Bulls seized the final two playoff places in Super Rugby on Saturday by prevailing in their winner-take-all South African derbies, completing a quarterfinal lineup where the Jaguares of Argentina provide a surprise challenge but New Zealand’s Crusaders remain on course for a third straight title.
While the Crusaders topping the league standings was predictable — they are the most successful team in the competition and the best in the southern hemisphere in recent years — the Jaguares threw up a significant shock by winning the South African conference and taking the No. 2 ranking for the playoffs.
Four New Zealand teams, two from South Africa, one from Australia and the Jaguares make up the last eight.
The Crusaders host the Highlanders and the Jaguares face the Chiefs in the first two quarters on Friday. It’s the Hurricanes versus the Bulls and the ACT Brumbies, Australia’s only contender, versus the Sharks on Saturday.
The Durban-based Sharks beat the Cape Town-based Stormers 12-9 while the Pretoria-based Bulls scored seven tries, four of them in the first 20 minutes, to defeat the Johannesburg-based Lions 48-27 and ending their run of three straight finals.
The Sharks sneaked into the playoffs via a last-minute try by center Lukhanyo Am. They had scored the only try of the game before that but the Stormers kicked their way to a 9-5 lead in a match of little creative flair.
That was until Am stepped in from the left touchline and weaved through a tiring Stormers defense to keep the Sharks’ season alive.
The Bulls conceded a try to Lions No. 8 Hacjivah Dayimani 16 seconds from kickoff but responded immediately and emphatically with powerful forward tries by Hanro Liebenberg, Marco van Staden and Lizo Gqoboka, and a sweeping backline move finished by Burger Odendaal.
The boot of Springboks flyhalf Elton Jantjies, starting at center for the Lions, helped close it to 31-27 in the second half.
Wing Cornal Hendricks beat three men in a brilliant solo effort to change the momentum again for the Bulls, who added two more late tries.
Earlier, the Wellington-based Hurricanes took advantage of their bench strength to rally from 24-7 down at halftime to beat the Auckland-based Blues 29-24.
Having already qualified for the playoffs and assured of fourth place and a home quarterfinal, the Hurricanes started an inexperienced combination.
The lineup was third string, and some of the starting backline had played fewer minutes in Super Rugby than the numbers on their backs.
The Blues took advantage and scored three first-half tries through center Taniela Tele’a, winger Caleb Clarke and fullback Melani Nanai.
But when the Hurricanes rolled out the heavy artillery in the second half, especially scrumhalf T.J. Perenara, back-rower Ardie Savea and hooker Asafo Aumua, the tide turned and the Blues couldn’t score again.
Passive and defensive in the first half, the Hurricanes went on the attack, scoring tries through flyhalf Fletcher Smith, lock Isaia Walker-Leawere and winger Peter Umaga-Jensen.
Jackson Garden-Bachop kicked a late penalty to clinch the Hurricanes’ 12th win of the regular season.
“It was a bit of a tale of two halves, that’s for sure,” Hurricanes captain Dane Coles said. “I’m just proud of the young lads. We threw some of the guys in the deep end and it wasn’t pretty in the first half. But the way they responded with a bit of a rev-up at halftime ... it was a good way to finish the round-robin.”
All Blacks center Sonny Bill Williams returned for the Blues after almost 10 weeks out with a knee injury. He produced a quiet performance in front of the New Zealand selectors.
The Brumbies went into the playoffs with their sixth straight victory, 40-27 over the Queensland Reds. The Brumbies had already clinched first place in the Australian conference.
“We’re pleased with the way we’re performing at the moment and the growth in the team has been nice,” Brumbies flyhalf Christian Leali’ifano said. “So we’ve just got to continue to keep working hard and hopefully we’ve got another few more weeks to go. Hopefully it doesn’t matter who we get.”
The Crusaders had a bye in the last round while the Jaguares finished the regular season, their best-ever in the competition, with a rampant 52-10 win over the Sunwolves.