MELBOURNE (Reuters) - If the Super Rugby quarter-finals had a collective face, it would be one only a New Zealand mother could love.
Three of the rugby power’s teams are through to the semi-finals, showing their ability to win tough and ugly, whether in biblical weather conditions or in hostile territory many timezones away.
The reigning champion Wellington Hurricanes led off with Friday’s grinding 35-16 win over the ACT Brumbies, a team that controversially enjoyed home advantage despite winning six fewer games than their opponents during the regular season.
The Canterbury Crusaders followed up by slowly choking the Otago Highlanders to death in atrocious conditions in Christchurch, winning 17-0 by the brute force of their forwards.
The Waikato Chiefs then made it a perfect three-out-of-three for New Zealand by wearing down the Stormers 17-11 in a dour two-try battle in Cape Town later on Saturday.
“It wasn’t pretty,” said outgoing coach Dave Rennie, whose departure will be delayed until at least next week’s semi-final against the Crusaders in Christchurch.
Johannesburg’s Lions make up the final four, having survived a huge scare in beating the Sharks 23-21 at home.
They will play the Hurricanes at home next week in a repeat of last year’s title-decider.
Bizarrely, it will be the South Africans’ first match against a New Zealand opponent this season due to the competition’s quirky scheduling.
The Lions topped the standings at the end of the regular season with a 14-1 record but belied their top seeding in the playoffs with an error-strewn display against the Sharks.
It took a 55-metre penalty kick from winger Ruan Combrinck in the final two minutes for the Lions to fall over the line.
Had the ball landed two metres shorter, the Hurricanes might have avoided the long-haul trip to Ellis Park and hosted the Sharks at home.
But the Hurricanes, who thrashed the Lions 20-3 in the home final last year after belting them in Johannesburg 50-17 earlier in the season, fear neither their opponents nor the travel.
“To play the Lions in a packed Ellis Park, I think we’d be pretty stimulated by that,” coach Chris Boyd told New Zealand media.
The Chiefs, back-to-back champions in 2012-13, may face a bigger test against the New Zealand conference-winning Crusaders, who are desperate to seal an eighth title and first since 2008.
While the driving rain at Rugby League Park played to the Crusaders’ strengths, their ability to completely shut down the Highlanders’ game will give the Chiefs’ staff plenty to think about during the week.
Under Rennie, the Chiefs have matched up well against the Crusaders and won their last three clashes in Christchurch.
The travel could ultimately prove decisive against a confident and relatively fresh opponent, however.
“I thought (the Crusaders’) pack was incredibly dominant and that’s going to be a challenge for us,” said Rennie.
“But we’ve got a pretty good pack. We’ll make sure we’ve got clarity and we’ll go down there and give it a real crack.
“History counts for bugger-all. In the end, we’re going to have to front up front. If we do that, then we can get our game going and hopefully nullify theirs.”
The Brumbies’ loss was the final nail in a dreadful season for the Australian conference which finished with a 0-26 record against New Zealand opponents.
Australian rugby has been mired in gloom over the commitment, as yet undelivered, to cull either the Melbourne Rebels or the Western Force from the competition next year when it contracts to 15 teams.
But a crowd of less than 10,000 turned up to watch the quarter-final in Canberra and support a local team with a guaranteed future.
It was a disappointing turn-out for a match which doubled as a farewell to coach and club stalwart Stephen Larkham and a celebration of former Wallaby Christian Lealiifano’s return after his diagnosis with leukaemia less than a year ago.
“If that’s not the most damning evidence of just how far the game has fallen then I don’t know what is,” a writer in the local Canberra Times newspaper lamented.
Reporting by Ian Ransom; Editing by Amlan Chakraborty