There’s four teams left in the race for the 2017 Super Rugby title. Here’s how this weekend’s semi-finals are shaping up.
CRUSADERS v CHIEFS – 5.35pm (AEST), Saturday, July 29 @ AMI Stadium, Christchurch
The Storyline: A titanic Kiwi derby showdown between Super Rugby’s most successful side the Crusaders (seven titles) and the last team to go back-to-back the Chiefs (2012-13). The Chiefs pulled off semi-final victories over the Crusaders on their way to both successes, but those classic encounters were staged in Hamilton; the Crusaders are protecting a perfect record at AMI Stadium in 2017. The conference champions shut the Highlanders out 17-0 in abhorrent conditions last week, while the Chiefs hung on for a 17-11 win in a gripping Cape Town affair against the Stormers.
The Stat: The Chiefs have won 8 of the last 11 matches between the teams, including four of the last five as the away side.
Last Time They Met: The contenders ventured to Fiji and produced a thriller, with the Crusaders backline’s enterprise in the second half vital to a 31-24 win.
Three Key Match-ups
Sam Whitelock v Brodie Retallick: The indomitable All Blacks lock pairing – and two of the greatest to ever play the position – find themselves on opposing sides. Crusaders skipper Whitelock and Chiefs gladiator Retallick are so crucial to their teams’ fortunes…but chances are they’ll cancel each other out.
Richie Mo’unga v Aaron Cruden: Crusaders linchpin Mo’unga has played beyond his years since debuting at the start of 2016, but this is the biggest test of his young career to date. He goes up against another diminutive, wily – but vastly more experienced – No.10 in Aaron Cruden, a renowned big-game player.
David Havili v Damian McKenzie: Another young gun in uncharted territory, Havili has enjoyed a breakout campaign and is keeping Israel Dagg on the wing – he can expect plenty of pressure from the Chiefs. Snubbed by the All Blacks selectors, McKenzie has a phenomenal impact on every match he plays at this level and will be a go-to player for the underdogs.
— Super Rugby (@SuperRugby) July 26, 2017
The Verdict: The Crusaders go in under more pressure as comfortable favourites with a dominant season to capitalise on, and the experienced and well-balanced Chiefs – with nothing to lose – will be a tricky opponent on Saturday night. The visitors arguably have the edge in the game-breaking department and overall class out wide, but the Crusaders’ younger brigade has turned up all season and their forward pack comes into this blockbuster in better form overall. The Crusaders will be better-suited to the conditions – which should only be moderately better than last weekend – and grind out a close win over a travel-weary Chiefs. Crusaders by 5
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— Super Rugby (@SuperRugbyNZ) July 26, 2017
LIONS v HURRICANES – 10.30pm (AEST), Saturday, July 29 @ Emirates Airlines Park, Johannesburg
The Storyline: A rematch of last year’s final combatants – but this time it’s in the Lions’ den. The Lions dominated the South African Group (their only loss this season was away to the Jaguares in Round 3) but they’ve had the luxury of avoiding the New Zealand Conference altogether in 2017. It could also be said that the Kiwi heavyweights have benefitted by not having to confront the red-hot Lions, however. The Hurricanes seem to be peaking at the right time, downing the previously unbeaten Crusaders in the final round before racking up the most emphatic win of the quarter-finals, blasting the Brumbies away 35-16 in Canberra. The Lions got out of jail against the unfancied Sharks, playing from behind most of the afternoon before a towering Ruan Combrinck penalty in the dying minutes snatched a 23-21 victory.
The Stat: The Hurricanes have won their last 8 – and 12 of their last 13 – against the Lions.
Last Time They Met: The 2016 final, where the Hurricanes overcame 20 years of heartbreak to subdue the Lions 20-3 in inhospitable Wellington conditions. Cory Jane and Beauden Barrett scored opportunist tries to spearhead the historic result.
Three Key Match-ups
Jordie Barrett v Andries Coetzee: Vince Aso’s return sees Barrett go back to fullback, and the incumbent All Blacks No.15 shapes as a pivotal figure. The equally versatile Coetzee is a Super Rugby veteran, but only made his Springboks debut this year.
Beauden Barrett v Elton Jantjies: Arguably the most influential player in the world, stopping the senior Barrett will be top priority for the hosts, who desperately need Jantjies to weave some of the same unpredictable magic if they’re to advance.
Dane Coles v Malcolm Marx: The dynamic Hurricanes skipper returned from a long layoff last week like he’d never been away. The Lions need similar impact from the 23-year-old Marx, a five-Test Springbok.
— ESPN Scrum (@espnscrum) July 27, 2017
The Verdict: The question has to be asked: are the Lions choking under the weight of their best-ever opportunity to win a title? After dominating their South African rivals for two years, they almost blew it last week – and the mental grip the Hurricanes have on them from last year’s decider, plus a 50-17 drubbing in Johannesburg during the 2016 regular season, may prove too much to overcome. The home-ground advantage is the Lions’ trump card, not to mention how unstoppable they are when they get on a roll, but the Hurricanes should have too many world-class performers in the shape of the Barrett brothers, Coles, Laumape, Perenara and the Savea boys. Hurricanes by 11
— Hurricanes Rugby (@Hurricanesrugby) July 27, 2017
— IOL Sport (@IOLsport) July 27, 2017