Super Rugby playoffs decided - Brumbies big losers
Sun, 15 Jul 2012 3:27p.m.
After leading the Australian conference for most of the regular season, the Brumbies were left behind when a series of surprise results affected the final scramble for playoff places in rugby's Super 15.
The Brumbies began the tournament's last regular-season round five points ahead of defending champion Queensland in the Australian conference and with a match against the lowly Blues, they seemed likely to secure a preferred route through the playoffs.
But their 30-16 home loss to the Blues, who won for only the fourth time in 16 matches, sent the Brumbies spinning out of the top-six playoffs on Saturday.
The Reds took a four-try bonus point in a 32-16 win over the Waratahs to finish first in Australia, and later results in South Africa shuffled the Brumbies down to a lonely seventh place.
Eight teams started the last round in contention and when the dust settled on a turbulent weekend almost no aspect of the championship standings was left unchanged.
The Cape Town-based Stormers started the round in second place – their regular station through the second half of the season - but climbed to first when the previously first-place Chiefs were beaten 28-25 by the Hurricanes.
The Chiefs lost their last two matches to give up the chance to claim their first-ever minor premiership and to concede to the Stormers the No. 1 seeding for the playoffs.
The Hurricanes' win lifted them as high as fourth place at the start of the final round. But they were eventually overtaken by other results.
When the Durban-based Sharks beat the Cheetahs 34-15 and the Pretoria-based Bulls beat the Lions 37-20 in the final match of the round, the Hurricanes were shuffled back to the eighth place in which they started the round.
The Stormers beat the Rebels 26-21 after leading 16-0 at halftime to move past the Chiefs into first place, to finish the round-robin with 14 wins from their 16 games.
From the opening game of the round between the Chiefs and Hurricanes to the last between the Bulls and Lions, the standings and possible playoffs lineup remained in almost constant flux.
The Crusaders lost their way after leading 32-3 at halftime against the Force but eventually won 38-24 to clinch fourth place and the best playoff draw for any team other than the conference winners. The Bulls eventually finished fifth and the Sharks sixth, setting up enticing matches in each stage of the playoffs which begin next weekend.
The first-place Stormers and second-place Chiefs have earned byes through the first playoff round and home advantage in the following week's semifinals. The Stormers, as the top-placed team, will carry that home advantage all the way to the final if they get that far.
The Reds will play the Sharks in Brisbane and the seven-time champion Crusaders will take on the three-time champion Bulls in Christchurch in next Saturday's first round.
The winners of those matches will then progress to the following weekend's semifinals, with the lowest-placed qualifier playing the Stormers in Cape Town and the highest-placed team playing the Chiefs in Hamilton.
That sets up a potential clash between the All Blacks-laden lineups of the Crusaders and Chiefs, who met in an outstanding match only two weeks ago.
The Stormers had to hold out a bold second-half rally from the Rebels to clinch first place for the first time in their history. Melbourne outscored the Stormers three tries to two but flyhalf Peter Grant kicked four penalties.
Hooker Dane Coles scored a contentious try in the fourth minute of stoppage time to give the Hurricanes their three-point win. Waikato seemed to have clinched the match with an intercept try to All Blacks flyhalf Aaron Cruden in the 57th minute, but Coles' last-gasp try tipped the Chiefs out of first place and lifted the Hurricanes temporarily to fourth before they were overtaken in a late stampede.
"We've worked hard to get ourselves into this position and the fact we've dropped a couple of games and still got a home semi highlights the good work done earlier," Chiefs coach Dave Rennie said. "We'll take a lot out of (this game).
"If we'd snuck home it might have painted over the cracks. We know we're good enough to win a championship and we've got a couple of weeks to tidy up some things and get it right for the semi."
The Brumbies, apparently out of sorts because of a rare afternoon kickoff, made a slow start and never regained the initiative from a Blues team determined to end a poor season on a high note. They were left in the unusual position of later cheering for the Waratahs, hoping their state neighbours might upset the Reds to allow them to cling to their Australian conference lead.
But the Reds calmly disposed of the Waratahs and achieved the bonus point that placed them atop the conference and spilled the Brumbies out of the playoffs. The Reds haven't recovered the form that made them champions last year in a season plagued by injuries but they have managed to keep their title defence alive.
"We talked all week about getting a result, and we achieved that," said Reds captain Will Genia. "Our defence was strong, and it's come after we started to build some momentum late in the season."
Wallaby and Reds flyhalf Quade Cooper is in doubt for the playoffs after he was cited and sin-binned for a second-half high tackle which forced a dazed Berrick Barnes off the field. He was to face a judiciary hearing on Sunday.
The Brumbies were left shell-shocked as their season-long bid for the playoffs dissolved in a single afternoon.
"It would be a terrible way to end the season the way we're standing in the change rooms right now," said coach Jake White. "That's not the ideal way you want to finish the season when you've been leading the conference the whole time."
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