WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) — The ACT Brumbies prevented a Kiwi sweep of the Super Pacific quarterfinals with a come-from-behind win over the Wellington-based Hurricanes and now face the toughest task in the tournament — playing the top-ranked Blues in Auckland.
The Blues stretched a club-record winning streak to 14 games with a 35-6 win over the Dunedin-based Highlanders on Saturday and will host the semifinal at Eden Park — and the final if they beat the Brumbies.
The second-ranked Crusaders will host the other semifinal in Christchurch after beating the Queensland Reds 37-15 and will face the Hamilton-based Chiefs who beat the New South Wales Waratahs 39-15.
Five New Zealand and three Australian teams contested the quarterfinals and the defeats of the Reds and Waratahs left the Brumbies as Australia’s last hope. They trailed 25-15 after 42 minutes but rallied with to score the last 20 points of the match in Canberra.
The challenge of playing the Blues at Eden Park is a stiff one but the Brumbies have some cause for confidence. They led the Blues after 80 minutes when the teams met three weeks ago during the regular season. Flyhalf Beauden Barrett won the match for the Blues with a dropped goal after the fulltime siren.
There were also indications in Saturday’s quarterfinal that the Blues can be contained for long periods. The Highlanders qualified for the playoffs after winning only four matches during the regular season. They held the Blues scoreless for 31 minutes and pinned them in their own half for most of the first quarter. The match only opened when Highlanders hooker Andrew Makalio was sent off for a dangerous tackle.
Barrett played a major role in the rally that saw the Blues score the last 35 points of the match. But the Brumbies will have noted the way in which the Highlanders stifled the Blues’ attack for a long period and may feel confident of begin able to do the same for a longer period.
“We go to Auckland really confident,” Brumbies coach Dan McKellar said. “We felt we should have won that game a couple of weeks ago. They’ve got threats across the park but we feel we’ve got the game that can challenge them and we’ll prepare for that.”
The Blues again will be without captain Dalton Papalii who had his appendix removed last week but discharged himself from hospital to attend Saturday’s match. The Brumbies likely will be strengthened by the return or backrower Rob Valetini.
The Chiefs also face a formidable task against the Crusaders in Christchurch. The 12-time champions once were unbeatable at home but that has changed and they were beaten at home by the Chiefs and the Blues this season.
The Chiefs’ form has fluctuated throughout the season, mostly due to injuries and cases of COVID-19. But their attack, sparked by two tries to scrumhalf and captain Brad Weber, looked sharp against the Waratahs and will test the Crusaders who not close to their best form.
“We’ve always maintained that we’ve got a team capable of winning the competition,” Chiefs coach Clayton McMillan said. “But you have to respect that (the Crusaders) are a tough nut to crack down there and this is when they start churning the wheels best, this time of the season.
“You’ve got to go down believing that you can win it and we’ll prepare thoroughly and give ourselves the best chance.”
All Blacks flyhalf Richie Mo’unga returned from injury to score a try among 22 points for the Crusaders, sharpening aspects of their attack.
The quarterfinals marked the end of the season for the Waratahs who didn’t win a game in 2021 but made the quarterfinals in a much improved season.
“I think last year was a tough year for the franchise and the team and to bounce back like we have, we’ve got a lot of growth left in us and we’ll but a better outfit next year,” captain Jake Gordon said.
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