Waratahs surge ahead, Crusaders all but gone
The Waratahs’ stop-start title defence may have clicked into gear at precisely the right time, snaring the lead in the Australian conference with a convincing 32-22 defeat of the Crusaders in a rematch of the 2014. The champs’ defensive pressure and aggression, combined with precision and enterprise with the ball in hand, set up a 25-8 lead before they withstood a second-half fight-back. Bernard Foley, whose brilliant kick-and-chase try sealed the win, was outstanding, along with Israel Folau, Rob Horne and a superb engine-room unit. The Waratahs now head to South Africa to take on the Lions and Cheetahs, before a final-round clash at home against the Reds. They are three points ahead of the Brumbies.
The Crusaders, on the other hand, have effectively done their dash for 2015. Sporting a 6-7 record, the perennial powerhouses would need bonus-point wins in their remaining games – against the Hurricanes, Blues and Brumbies – and a string of other results to go their way to avoid missing the finals for the first time since 2001. In a cruel irony, legendary flanker Richie McCaw – who gave away the penalty that allowed Bernard Foley to boot the ’Tahs to glory in last year’s decider at ANZ – trudged off the same venue for the last time in a Crusaders jersey after being yellow-carded for a ruck infringement with 10 minutes to go.
JOC’s woes sum up Reds’ ragged night
James O’Connor is one of the game’s great enigmas – a match-winning genius with incredible all-round ability, countered by a penchant for petulant behaviour and the occasional howler. At Suncorp Stadium on Friday night he followed up a halftime spat with teammate and former All Blacks forward Adam Thomson that required Will Genia’s intervention, before producing the howler of the season to seal the Reds’ 10th loss of a dismal campaign. With his side trailing by two, O’Connor’s clearing kick off his own try-line skewed straight into the arms of Sharks halfback Stefan Ungerer, who dived over for his second try and a 21-14 win in the dying stages of a hard-fought second half. Turnovers plagued the Reds throughout a scrappy contest that the home side was favoured to win.
Kiwi heavyweights roll on
The Hurricanes overwhelmed the under-strength Blues 29-5, an Augustine Pulu double helped the Chiefs to a 34-20 win over the Bulls in Rotorua, and the Highlanders overwhelmed a gritty Force side 23-3 in Perth as the New Zealand trio retained the three best records in the Super XV. With a 13-point lead at the top of the table, the Hurricanes are virtually assured of the minor premiership.
With the Australian and South African conference leaders guaranteed the next two spots, the crucial fourth spot – which comes with a home final (more than likely against their compatriots) in week one of the playoffs – could come down to Saturday night’s showdown between the Highlanders and Chiefs in Invercargill. In an intriguing, blockbuster-packed finish to the regular season, both sides also take on the Hurricanes in subsequent rounds.
South African shake-up
The Bulls were the big sliders in Round 15 following their 14-point loss to the Chiefs, slipping from top spot in the South African conference to eighth on the ladder after the Stormers downed the Rebels 29-15 (effectively ending the Melbourne side’s bold finals bid) and the Lions scored a 40-17 bonus-point win over the Cheetahs.
The Stormers lead the way on 38 points, while counting against the seventh-placed Lions (36 points) is their final-round bye; the Bulls are on 35 points. The Lions host the Waratahs this weekend, before a pivotal showdown with the Stormers at Newlands in Round 17. Unfortunately for the Bulls, they still have the Australian leg of their Down Under tour – facing off against the Brumbies (who are delicately placed in sixth on 38 points) and Rebels – to come.
SUPER XV LOWDOWN
Chiefs 34 d. Bulls 20 @ Rotorua International Stadium
Sharks 21 d. Reds 14 @ Suncorp Stadium
Hurricanes 29 d. Blues 5 @ Eden Park
Waratahs 32 d. Crusaders 22 @ ANZ Stadium
Highlanders 23 d. Force 3 @ nib Stadium
Lions 40 d. Cheetahs 17 @ Free State Stadium
Stormers 31 d. Rebels 15 @ Newlands Stadium