Super Rugby Pacific Semifinals: Crusaders Step Closer To Extending Dynasty
Super Rugby Pacific Semifinals: Crusaders Step Closer To Extending Dynasty
After this weekend’s semifinal round, only two teams can move on to the final of the 2023 Super Rugby Pacific season. Until then, chaos awaits.
Eight entered. Four remain.
And, after this weekend’s semifinal round, only two can move on to the final of the 2023 Super Rugby Pacific season. Until then, chaos awaits.
It was a clean sweep for the top four seeds in the quarterfinal round of Super Rugby’s annual bracket. They dispatched the bottom quartet that qualified for the postseason, leaving a New Zealand-heavy contingent left standing.
The Chiefs, Crusaders, Blues and Brumbies – the exact four teams that also made it to this point in the playoffs a year ago – proved once again that success often is part of an exclusive club in Super Rugby, where juggernauts roam and winning runs are long.
But as for which teams are left and where the direction of the title race goes from here, all is up for grabs now, and the clubs in the running all have their own reasons for how and why they can contend for gold.
There arguably isn’t a better club rugby competition in the world, and these final couple of weeks, when accolades and acclaim are on the line, are where the best of the best of Super Rugby is brought out.
Here’s a look back at the recent quarterfinal round and the semifinal round to come in Super Rugby Pacific this weekend, with matches throughout the remainder of the competition being livestreamed in the United States exclusively on FloRugby.
Top seeds/hosts ruled the opening round, going 4-0, while booking their spots in the semifinals, but not all results last weekend were created equal.
The biggest near-shock of the round, after all, involved the No. 1 seed in the bracket.
The Chiefs – whose only regular-season loss this season came at the hands of their first-round playoff opponent, the Queensland Reds – were mere minutes away from infamously becoming the first New Zealand team to lose a playoff match to an Australian side on home soil, but a 7-for-7 kicking display from No. 10 Damian McKenzie and a 73rd-minute try from Pita Gus Sowakula allowed the Hamiltonians to skate by with a 29-20 victory, despite being behind by a point with 10 minutes to play.
Mixed in with the Blues’ dismantling of the New South Wales Waratahs by a 41-12 scoreline at Eden Park, in which the hosts recorded five tries through five players, that left the Brumbies as Australia's lone representative in the semifinals.
The Brumbies picked up a thrilling 37-33 victory over the Hurricanes – and what a way to advance.
Down eight points with 20 minutes to play, the Brumbies found a breakthrough by getting tries from Luke Reimer and Tom Wright to take back the lead, then dramatically held on for dear life well after the full-time siren, as the ‘Canes, who had what would’ve been a match-winning try from Ardie Savea denied after evidence that he grounded the ball to score was inconclusive, controversially were knocked out. That set up the Aussies for a return to the semifinals.
As for the four-time defending champion Crusaders, who welcomed the Fijian Drua to the Orangetheory Stadium in the latter’s first playoff appearance, the Fijians couldn’t replicate the magic of their Round 3 upset over coach Scott Robertson’s men.
Codie Taylor had a brace within the first 15 minutes en route to a cut-and-dry 49-8 win for the juggernaut No. 2 seed.
Crusaders Vs. Blues
A rematch of last year’s final, the Blues, who were then playing in their first non-regionalized Super Rugby championship game since winning it all in 2003, sputtered out at the end of a sublime season and merely ended up how most clubs have over the past decade-plus – on the losing end to the mighty Crusaders.
Therefore, it would be awfully sweet if the Aucklanders could slay the giant and make it back-to-back finals in the process, but Crusaders rugby, especially at playoff time, is a marvel and a machine.
Incredibly, in their Super Rugby history, the Crusaders have never lost a home playoff match (dating back to their first appearance in 1998) – a near beyond-belief 28-match playoff winning streak on home ground, along with 14 straight victories overall in the finals, regardless of location.
And, sure enough, Orangetheory Stadium will play host to the Crusaders’ semifinal fixture, too, against a Blues side the Christchurch club has beaten on 17 of its past 18 opportunities.
The odds are stacked against coach Leon MacDonald and his men, as the Crusaders will be aiming to possibly give Robertson a proper home farewell.
Robertson, who will take over as the New Zealand national team coach, beginning in 2024, would see his final fixture on the touchline as Crusaders boss if the Chiefs win, regardless of semifinal result. As the top seed, the Chiefs would have hosting rights for a Chiefs-Crusaders title match.
With that motivation and aforementioned history and tradition in mind, plus the possible chance of yet another piece of hardware to stuff into the trophy cabinet, the Crusaders – paced by Taylor, who has scored seven tries in his past seven games – and their stacked squad of All Blacks and other difference-makers, will be a heavy favorite to advance to yet another Super Rugby final.
But, if the Blues are serious about finally ending two decades of pain, it may be time to make some history of their own to the Crusaders’ detriment.
Chiefs Vs. Brumbies
Australia hasn’t won a Super Rugby title since 2014, and for the past five seasons, no Australian side has advanced further in the finals than the Brumbies.
With that in mind, is it finally time for the Canberra-based club to break through and secure a trophy of its own for the first time since 2004? Maybe, but good luck trying to break that hoodoo against the Chiefs.
Super Rugby’s table-toppers for 2023 for a reason, coach Clayton McMillan has guided the club to its best campaign in a decade (the last time it captured the first-place trophy, by the way) with an entertaining, high-scoring style that helped the squad defeat the Brumbies once already in the competition, by a 31-21 score just a few weeks ago in Round 14.
In that match, McKenzie – who has gone a combined 12-for-12 with his kicks in this fixture and the Chiefs’ quarterfinal win – was sure-footed by going 5-of-5 with his boot, while five tries from the rest of the Chiefs’ crew, including one from breakout star Shaun Stevenson (11 tries in 2023), sealed the door shut on the Aussies. Two tries from them in the final 11 minutes ended up being merely for consolation purposes.
Heartbreakingly denied a chance in the 2022 final after being beaten 20-19 in a semifinal classic against the Blues, however, there’s motivation to finally get the job done.
The Brumbies side returns many of the same players, with a number of those names looking to embark on several key performances prior to the looming Rugby World Cup, in efforts to try and impress returning Australia national team boss Eddie Jones.
At the same time, the Chiefs might just be this season’s team of destiny – and the one worthy of reclaiming the Super Rugby throne for the rest of the league.
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