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The Western Stormers square off against the Golden Lions in a blockbuster South African derby while Crusaders prop Wyatt Crockett sets a match record in Super Rugby this weekend.
The Canterbury Crusaders and Stormers are the only unbeaten sides remaining going into round eight of the competition, which next year will revert to a 15-team format from its current 18.
The fallout from governing body SANZAAR’s announcement to axe three teams — two from South Africa and one from Australia — has dominated the past week.
Threatened franchise Western Force have launched legal action against Australian rugby chiefs.
Seven-times champion Crusaders ease back into the fray following a bye by hosting the Sunwolves who won their first match of the season last week.
All Blacks captain Kieran Read is back for his first outing of the season having recovered from wrist surgery.
And the match will be a significant milestone for fellow All Black Crockett as he makes a record 176th appearance in Super Rugby.
The 34-year-old will overtake former All Black Keven Mealamu’s record of 175.
SANZAAR chief Andy Marinos described Crockett’s record as “a tremendous achievement for a player who is at the coal face of one of the hardest and most competitive rugby competitions in the world”.
The Crusaders feel comfortable enough to make a raft of changes to the side that beat the Waratahs a fortnight ago. Just five players of their 23 remain in the same position
In the showdown between the top two South African sides, the Stormers are brimming with confidence after inflicting the first loss of the season on the Waikato Chiefs last week while the Lions are coming off a bye.
Lions coach Johan Ackermann believes the week off came at the right time as it allowed several key players including Rohan Janse van Rensburg, Ruan Ackermann, and Elton Jantjies to get over niggling injuries.
The Stormers “are the team to beat in South Africa and it’s going to take something special to get the better of them at Newlands,” Ackermann said.
“They’re playing an exciting brand of rugby and their skill levels are extremely high so it’s going to be a huge challenge going there.”
The Stormers, though, have injury woes after the punishing outing against the Chiefs with flanker Cobus Wiese and locks Pieter-Steph du Toit and Eben Etzebeth unable to train early in the week.
They are also in a tough sequence of matches with home games against the Chiefs and Lions to be followed by a trip to New Zealand to face the Crusaders, Otago Highlanders and Wellington Hurricanes.
The Chiefs, looking to get their season back on track, are in Bloemfontein to face a Central Cheetahs side desperate to prove they deserve to survive the Super Rugby culling process.
“These are challenging and uncertain times,” the Cheetahs said in a statement this week.
“We strongly believe that through an honest and fair process we stand a strong chance of retaining our Super Rugby status.”
The defending champion Wellington Hurricanes are in Auckland to face a Blues side which has Sonny Bill Williams starting in a new unique jersey which does not feature the logo of team sponsor Bank of New Zealand (BNZ) to conform with his Muslim beliefs.
But Williams has agreed to wear, instead, the logo of child health service Plunket whose principal sponsor is the BNZ.
In the remaining matches, top Australian side ACT Brumbies play the struggling Melbourne Rebels, who along with Western Force are under threat of being kicked out of the 2018 competition.
Elsewhere, the Queensland Reds are at home to the Southern Kings and the Northern Bulls return to South Africa after an unsuccessful road trip to host the Jaguares.
The Wellington Hurricanes ended a 20-year nightmare Saturday when Beauden Barrett in scintillating form engineered a 20-3 victory over the Golden Lions on Saturday for their maiden Super Rugby title.
On a miserable, wet night in Wellington, man-of-the-match Barrett was everywhere for the Hurricanes and settled the outcome of the final with an audacious try 12 minutes from time.
There were tumultuous scenes in the packed stadium as the Hurricanes, a team which often promised plenty but never delivered, became the fifth New Zealand side to be crowned Super champions.
“There’s been a lot of sorrow for this club and tonight we can finally say we’re champions for a Hurricanes team that’s been trying for a lot of years,” captain Dane Coles said.
“This goes out to all the Hurricanes players who have played for the jersey. We finally did it.”
Lions skipper Warren Whiteley accepted the Hurricanes deserved to win, but said his side only back in the competition three years since being dumped, would continue their meteoric rise next year.
“We feel the best is yet to come. This is only the start for us. We’ll have the same squad next year and we’ll learn from this,” Whiteley said.
The atrocious conditions dictated the outcome would rest on which of rival fly-halves Barrett and Elton Jantjies could best direct play.
It was a kicking duel Barrett won as he kept returning the Hurricanes to point-scoring positions despite the Lions dominating territory.
Cory Jane also scored for the Hurricanes with Barrett adding two conversions and two penalties while the Lions points came from a sole Elton Jantjies penalty.
It has been a long road to the top for the Hurricanes who lost the 2006 and 2015 finals as well as being beaten five times in the semi-finals.
But 2016 was not going to elude them, particularly with their local knowledge of Wellington’s wintry conditions while the arduous travel from South Africa eventually told on the Lions as the game wore on.
When the Lions used their big men to ram a pathway forward in the first half they were stopped in their tracks time and again as Brad Shields and Victor Vito, in his 100th game, led a bruising defence.
If the Lions went wide they were rattled by the Hurricanes line speed which directly led to the opening try.
Lionel Mapoe was forced to rush a clearing kick which went straight into the arms of Jane a few metres away and the former All Black wing had an easy run to the line.
The Hurricanes thought they had first points on the board six minutes into the game when Jane fielded a Barrett cross kick and crossed the line wide out only to be brought back for an earlier knock on.
But Jane was not to be denied the second time and with Barrett and Jantjies exchanging penalties the Hurricanes led 10-3 at the turn.
The Lions believed they had a try scoring chance late in the first half when they turned down a close-range penalty in favour of a scrum only to be pushed off the ball by a ‘Canes pack that was otherwise beaten in every other scrum.
A further Barrett penalty early in the second half extended the lead to 13-3 and as the Lions desperately tried to close the gap Barrett settled the outcome 12 minutes from the end.
The Lions won a defensive lineout only to fumble the ball which allowed the ever-alert Barrett to race through to score under their noses.
Victor Vito believes the script has been written for his Wellington Hurricanes to become the fifth new Super Rugby champions in six years when they battle the Golden Lions in Saturday’s final.
The odds favour the All Black flanker’s side winning the southern Hemisphere championship in what will be his 100th and final game for the Hurricanes.
They finished top of the regular season giving them home advantage, while the Lions have to make the energy-sapping journey from South Africa to New Zealand.
There is also the added emotion of the popular Vito’s milestone match to bring down the curtain on his career with the Hurricanes before linking up with French club La Rochelle.
“It certainly seems like the script’s been written a little bit,” Vito said. “A hundred games is pretty massive for me personally, but for me I’m just more excited about the fact that once again we are giving ourselves a shot to win a title as a team.”
Although playing at home did not profit the Hurricanes when they lost last year’s final to the Otago Highlanders, they have the added advantage this year of the travel factor impacting on the Lions.
In 10 attempts, no South African team has flown to New Zealand for a play-off match and won.
The Lions situation boils down to coach Johann Ackermann’s decision to rest his top players for their final pool match against the Jaguares in Argentina and they paid the ultimate price by being comprehensively beaten.
Had they managed just one point out of that game they would be hosting the final on the high veldt in South Africa, instead of playing in what is forecast to be a chilly, wet Wellington evening.
“I’ll probably have to live with the team selection for Buenos Aires,” Ackermann said.
“Will we make the wrong decision sometimes? Yes. But we’ll always go down trying.”
“We were confident that we’d get back into Super Rugby,” he said.
“It’s that old saying, you only really start appreciating something when you’re not involved, and to be out of Super Rugby was a big wake up call for all of us.”
The Hurricanes are again likely to be without their captain Dane Coles who has been bracketed with Ricky Riccitelli.
“He will do everything he can to be fit for kick-off and if he doesn’t make it then we have every confidence Ricky and Leni (replacement Leni Apisa) will step up and do a good job if required,” coach Chris Boyd said in naming his side, which again has All Black Julian Savea on the bench.
Hurricanes assistant coach Jason Holland described the Lions as a “complete side” with an astute tactician in fly-half Elton Jantjies.
“They’re a pretty complete side and we’re going to have to match them physically and then be aware that they can play with a bit of width,” Holland said.
It is the third final to be contested by the Hurricanes and a maiden appearance for the Lions.
The winner will join the Highlanders, NSW Waratahs, Chiefs and Queensland Reds who have all won their maiden titles in the past five years with the Chiefs winning twice.
Comparing their vital statistics, the Lions’ impressive running game has them top of the try list with 81 this year to the Hurricanes’ 70, and they have scored a total of 535 points to the Hurricanes’ 458.
But the Hurricanes have a better defensive record, leaking 314 points to the Lions’ 349 and they go into the final having not had any tries scored against them in more than 230 minutes.
When the two sides met in Johannesburg earlier this year, the Hurricanes won 50-17.
A Super Rugby gamble by the Golden Lions in fielding a reserve team against Argentina’s Jaguares backfired Saturday as they lost 34-22 in Buenos Aires.
Coach Johan Ackermann rested all 15 players who started last weekend’s victory over fellow South Africa side Southern Kings, fearing injuries and side effects from travelling to the Argentinian capital.
The Johannesburg team needed one point from the final match of the regular season to top the overall standings but finished empty handed after surrendering a 15-12 half-time lead.
The result left New Zealand’s Wellington Hurricanes in first place as they became the top seeds and earned home advantage for the knockout phase, which begins with the quarter-finals next week.
The Wellington team are one of four Kiwi contenders to reach the playoffs. They will host the eighth-seeded Coastal Sharks of South Africa next Saturday.
Also on Saturday, Lions will tackle Canterbury Crusaders in Johannesburg and Western Stormers face Waikato Chiefs in Cape Town.
The quarter-finals kick off with the ACT Brumbies against title-holders Otago Highlanders in Canberra on Friday night.
The last-eight line-up raises the possibility of all the semi-finalists coming from New Zealand, the dominant country in the competition.
While Lions prepared for a long, depressing flight home across the Atlantic Ocean, Jaguares celebrated the most impressive of four victories in a 15-match debut season.
“It was a tough match and the Lions enjoyed a good first half,” admitted Jaguares skipper and scrum-half Martin Landajo, standing in for injured hooker Agustin Creevy.
“But in the second half we were very good and deserved our second victory in three weeks over a South African side.
“This is a wonderful climax to the season for our supporters. I am so happy that we produced such a fine performance in front of them.”
Lions skipper and scrum-half Ross Cronje conceded that the superior side won on a bitterly cold night at Estadio Jose Amalfitani.
“The Jaguares played for 80 minutes, but we faded after half-time and conceded far too many penalties.
“Our discipline slipped under severe pressure during the second half, resulting in two forwards (Cyle Brink and Lourens Erasmus) being sin-binned.
“We want to get home and start doing our homework on the Crusaders, who beat us in Johannesburg this season.”
Number eight Facundo Isa was outstanding in an Argentine pack that held their own in the opening half and took charge after the break, especially when numerically advantaged.
Fears that the absence of inspirational leader Creevy and fellow casualty, flanker Pablo Matera, would have a negative impact proved unfounded.
Lions won the first-half try contest 2-0 and when giant winger Anthony Volmink scored his second two minutes into the second half for a 22-12 lead, it seemed the reserve-team gamble might pay off.
But the South Africans did not score again while the Argentines claimed 22 points, including tries from Isa and substitute lock Matias Alemanno plus a penalty try.
The other 19 points came from fly-half Nicolas Sanchez, who slotted two conversions and five penalties from nine shots at goal.
Volmink (2) and full-back Sylvian Mahuza scored tries for the Lions with fly-half Jaco van der Walt converting two and kicking one penalty.
Golden Lions scored a flattering 57-21 bonus-point victory over fellow South Africans Southern Kings in Johannesburg on Friday to regain first place in the overall Super Rugby standings.
The Lions went into the penultimate round of the regular season with a one-point advantage over the Waikato Chiefs, a New Zealand team who have won the competition twice.
But an eight-try 50-5 bonus-point triumph by the Chiefs over the Queensland Reds of Australia in Brisbane put the pressure back on the Johannesburg outfit.
They responded by also scoring eight tries at Ellis Park stadium — three of them when the Kings had at least one player in the sin-bin — to retake top place by a single point.
Already guaranteed a home quarter-final by taking an unassailable lead in the Africa 2 conference last weekend, finishing first overall would mean a home semi-final and final for the South Africans if they continue winning.
The Lions complete their league schedule away to the Argentine Jaguares in Buenos Aires next Saturday while the Chiefs visit defending champions and fellow New Zealanders Otago Highlanders the same day.
Success for the Lions, after leading 17-7 at half-time before a small crowd who braved the southern hemisphere winter chill, equalled their Super Rugby record of five consecutive victories.
Despite the 36-point winning margin, the Lions were not particularly impressive in a match between the strongest and weakest of the six South African sides in Super Rugby.
The Lions took time to establish scrum dominance, were victims of a few line-out steals, committed handling errors and wasted opportunities to score several more tries.
They also benefitted greatly from the sin-binning of Kings centre Shane Gates and skipper and hooker Edgar Marutlulle during the second half.
While both were off the field the Lions scored two converted tries, and a further seven points when the Kings were one man short.
Those scores changed a 24-14 lead into a 45-14 advantage and as the Kings tired in the closing stages, the Lions ran in two more tries.
“The Kings made life really difficult for us during the first half,” admitted Lions flanker Jaco Kriel, standing in as skipper for injured loose forward Warren Whiteley.
Marutlulle was upbeat despite the latest heavy loss this season in South Africa, New Zealand and Argentina.
“We fought well and enjoyed playing at Ellis Park. The spirit in this team is amazing,” he said.
Centre Rohan Janse van Rensburg (2), full-back Andries Coetzee, scrum-half Faf de Klerk, lock Franco Mostert, hooker Malcolm Marx, substitute back Sylvian Mahuza and winger Courtnall Skosan scored tries for the Lions.
Fly-half Elton Jantjies kicked five conversions and a penalty and winger Ruan Combrinck slotted two conversions.
Scrum-half James Hall, centre Stefan Watermeyer and substitute prop Schalk Ferreira scored a try each for the Kings and all three were converted by fly-half Louis Fouche.
South Africa’s Golden Lions became the first team to secure a Super Rugby play-off berth at the weekend while the New Zealand and Australia conferences remained too close to call.
With only two rounds left in the regular season, the Lions 37-10 victory over the Coastal Sharks in Johannesburg gave them an unassailable 12-point lead in the Africa 2 conference.
It was not a perfect performance and the Lions drew criticism from stand-in captain Jaco Kriel for going off the boil in the second half.
But the five-try, bonus-point, triumph was enough to also propel them to the top of the overall ladder with 47 points.
The Western Stormers have all but wrapped up the Africa 1 group, drawing nine points clear of the Northern Bulls.
However, New Zealand’s top four — Waikato Chiefs, Canterbury Crusaders, Wellington Hurricanes and Otago Highlanders — are stacked up on 46, 45, 44 and 43 points respectively.
The Chiefs proved too good for previous competition leaders Crusaders with a 23-13 win in Fiji, the Hurricanes came from behind to beat the Auckland Blues 37-27 while the Highlanders downed the Southern Kings 48-18.
In Australia, the ACT Brumbies remain ahead of the NSW Waratahs on points differential only after both sides bagged bonus point wins.
The Lions led the Sharks 27-0 at half-time and stretched the advantage to 37 points at Ellis Park before a Sharks revival produced two tries.
Kriel, skippering the Lions in the absence of injured No. 8 Warren Whiteley, said being good for 60 minutes would not be good enough in the play-offs.
“We took our foot off the pedal in the final 20 minutes and that was cause for concern. In the knockout stages, the last quarter often determines which team triumphs,” he said.
In the battle for overall supremacy, the Lions are still to play the lowly Southern Kings and Jaguares, the Chiefs face the Queensland Reds and Highlanders while the Crusaders are yet to play the Melbourne Rebels and Wellington Hurricanes.
The ‘Canes moved to one point behind the Crusaders with a late burst including two tries to Vaea Fifita to beat the Auckland Blues 37-27 after trailing 27-17 early in the second half.
In the tightly-contested Australian conference, the injection of Argentine scrumhalf Tomas Cubelli off the bench in the second half sparked the Brumbies to a 43-24 win over the Queensland Reds in Canberra.
But the six-tries-to-three bonus point performance was not enough to pull them clear of the Waratahs who scored nine tries when they dominated the Sunwolves 57-12.
The Stormers were also in bonus-point form when they beat the Rebels 57-31 in Melbourne, while their nearest rivals in the Africa 1 conference, the Bulls, were upset 29-11 by the Jaguares in Buenos Aires.
The reigning champions Highlanders stayed in contention in the New Zealand conference when they scored four late tries for a flattering 48-18 victory over the Kings.
In Bloemfontein, the Central Cheetahs pipped the Western Force 30-29, with both sides already too far down the table to make the finals.
A strong second half showing enabled the Golden Lions to trounce the Jaguares 52-24 in a Super Rugby match in Johannesburg Saturday despite missing seven of 12 goal kicks.
The inaccuracy of fly-half Elton Jantjies (three misses) and winger Ruan Combrinck (four misses) did not harm the South African side because they scored eight tries.
After a relatively even first half at a chilly Ellis Park stadium ended 19-9 in favour of the Lions, the Argentinians faded dramatically and conceded several soft tries.
The Jaguares lacked two key forwards with No. 8 Leonardo Senatore starting a 10-week ban for biting and skipper and hooker Agustin Creevy a one-week suspension for a dangerous tackle.
Victory ensured the Lions would finish round 13 as the leading team in the two Africa conferences with 37 points and a top-two finish after the league phase will secure a home quarter-final.
It was the ninth loss in 11 games for the Jaguares, whose line-up is packed with Argentine Test regulars, and the heaviest defeat they have suffered in their debut Super Rugby season.
The South Africans often troubled the Argentinians at the scrums and were superior in the loose, winning many turn-overs, several of which led to scores.
Another area of strength for the home side was the ability to get the ball to wingers Combrinck and Courtnall Skosan, who scored two tries each.
The Jaguares seem to have become obsessed with running the ball, wherever they are in the field, and this has led to a season-long glut of handling errors.
Once superb scrummagers, the Argentines have literally gone backwards in this facet with Lions tighthead Julian Redelinghuys giving loosehead Santiago Garcia Botta a torrid time.
Skosan was first to score, dotting down in the corner after 150 seconds, but Jaguares fly-half Nicolas Sanchez slotted two penalties for a 6-5 lead.
Centre Lionel Mapoe became the joint leading Super Rugby try scorer this season with eight by displaying electric pace and Jantjies converted.
A third Sanchez penalty trimmed the Lions’ lead to three points before lock Lourens Erasmus galloped past several half-hearted tackles to score and Jantjies converted for a 19-9 advantage.
Flanker Cyle Brink and Jaco Kriel, Combrinck, Skosan and Combrinck again scored second half tries for the now dominant Lions.
Combrinck, who replaced substituted Jantjies as the goal kicker for the second half, succeeded with only one of five conversions, but did goal two penalties.
Sanchez contributed 17 points from a try and four penalties, replacement scrum-half Gonzalo Bertranou scored a try and another substitute back, Santiago Gonzalez Iglesias, kicked a conversion.