The Lions and New South Wales Waratahs completed the Super Rugby semifinal lineup on Saturday and one of them will have the chance to put a dent in New Zealand’s dominance.
South Africa’s Lions beat Argentina’s Jaguares 40-23 in Johannesburg in the last quarterfinal.
Australia’s Waratahs earlier orchestrated a spectacular second-half comeback in Sydney to beat New Zealand’s Highlanders 30-23 after trailing 23-6 at halftime.
The Lions will host the Waratahs in one semifinal, with the winner through to the final against either the defending champion Crusaders or 2016 winners the Hurricanes, who meet in the other, all-New Zealand, last-four matchup.
The strength of the New Zealand teams, and the Crusaders in particular, was demonstrated when the Christchurch-based side dismantled the Sharks 40-10. The Crusaders have lost just twice in 17 games this season – both to New Zealand opposition – are unbeaten at home all season, and are chasing a record-extending ninth title. The next-best teams in Super Rugby history have won three.
The Hurricanes prepared for their all-New Zealand semifinal against the Crusaders by beating the Chiefs 32-31 in an all-New Zealand quarter on Friday.
New Zealand teams have won 15 of the 22 Super Rugby titles, five of the last six, and the last three. The team to break the recent run was the Waratahs in 2014.
They gave themselves a chance at a second championship after overturning a big deficit against the Highlanders.
The Waratahs scored three tries in seven minutes in the second half to turn it around, with two of those tries by flyhalf Bernard Foley, who collected 25 points in all. All three tries came while the Highlanders were down to 14 men by the sin-binning of winger Waisake Naholo.
Naholo and center Rob Thompson scored first-half tries to build what seemed an impregnable lead for the Highlanders.
But in the astonishing turnaround, the Waratahs scored tries through Foley, fullback Israel Folau and Foley again from the 54th to 60th minutes. With a further penalty to Foley, they extended that lead to seven points and defended effectively even when they lost a player to the sin-bin with six minutes remaining.
”There’s real belief in this team,” Foley said. ”The boys have shown fight and we’re never out of a game … we just showed belief, belief that what we’ve done all year is going to get us out of it and it’s a hell of a story.”
Although nowhere near as epic as the Waratahs’ fightback, the Lions overcame a slow start and were 6-0 down to the Jaguares before scoring three first-half tries and 24 unanswered points at Ellis Park.
Ruan Combrinck caught a cross-kick from flyhalf and man-of-the-match Elton Jantjies and slipped through the Jaguares’ defense for the first try. Center Harold Vorster followed up his own kick and pounced on a Jaguares error for the second. Hooker Malcolm Marx intercepted and scooted 50 meters for the third try. The Lions led 24-9 at halftime.
Playing in their first Super Rugby quarterfinal, the Jaguares closed the gap to four points when wing Bautista Delguy and captain Pablo Matera went over in the first eight minutes of the second half. They couldn’t maintain the momentum.
Fullback Andries Coetzee broke Delguy’s tackle to run in for the Lions’ fourth try following a drive up the middle by the Lions forwards. Jantjies, who had 20 points, kicked a late dropped goal and a penalty to seal it.
Although three of the Lions’ four tries were scored by backs, and the other from Marx came from broken play, their forwards dominated the Jaguares’ scrum to set the platform.
”They’re doing it every single week,” Jantjies said. ”It makes it easier for us as backs.”
The Lions are still seeking a first title having lost to the Hurricanes and Crusaders in the last two finals.
For the Crusaders, All Blacks center Ryan Crotty made midfield breaks to set up tries for scrumhalf Bryn Hall and fullback David Havili in the day’s first quarterfinal against the Sharks, giving the Crusaders a 13-0 lead after 12 minutes.
The Sharks closed the gap to 16-7 at halftime with a try to winger Jacobus van Wyk.
But, aware of the Crusaders’ propensity to score late in the first half and early in the second, they conceded a soft try to flanker Matt Todd in the 42nd minute which gave the home team a telling 23-7 lead.
Winger Braydon Ennor and loose forward Pete Samu came off the bench to add two more tries as the Crusaders finished clinically, as they have all season.
”The boys stepped up, stayed nice and composed, especially when it was quite tight there in the middle,” Crusaders captain Sam Whitelock said.