Ultimately, the four best teams in 2016 have won through to the Super Rugby semis, after a weekend of quarters that delivered surprising result after surprising result.
Even in the wet weather, the general consensus was the Highlanders would have too much for the Brumbies, yet the home side were in a position to make the winning play for most of the final ten minutes. The Lions were widely favoured to topple the Crusaders, but I can’t imagine too many saw the 17-point margin coming.
And similarly, the only plausible explanation for anyone suggesting they had the Hurricanes and Chiefs winning by 40 is that they’ve either mastered time-travel, or they’re lying.
Regardless, the four semi-finalists have all won through to the penultimate weekend of the competition by virtue of a magnificent team performance when it mattered the most, but it goes a little beyond that. Within the four wins were some outstanding games from individual players, which all had the effect of lifting their teammates around them.
Amid all the confusion and pressure of the last passages of play on Friday night, and after the Highlanders’ scrum had been soundly beaten for the preceding 70 minutes, they somehow managed to hold steady under increased intensity on their own line. And twice it was the outstanding vision and the speed with which Elliot Dixon broke off the blindside of the scrum to pressure Tomás Cubelli that snuffled out Brumbies’ attacking opportunities.
Earlier, the now All Blacks flanker took it upon himself to save his side’s lineout. The first few Highlanders lineouts saw a throw pulled up for not being straight – a rarity up there with rocking horse manure, it seems currently – and targets missed, but Dixon from midway through the first half turned that quickly-building weakness into a strength.
Smartly, the Highlanders threw to Dixon at two almost exclusively from thereon – he won nine of the eleven successful Highlanders lineout throws – but when defending the lineout, Dixon starting contesting every Brumbies throw and applying his own pressure. Some he won himself, others he was able to disrupt throws and jumpers, and it was notable that the Brumbies late in the game where choosing attacking scrums rather than backing their lineout drive.
Dixon was a major reason for that. At one point in the second half, Dixon missed the jump at the front, allowing Brumbies replacement flanker Michael Wells to take the catch cleanly, only for Dixon to somehow claim the ball on the way to the ground and effect the steal. He carried strongly all night, was strong at the breakdown and immense in defence.
Considering how good he was in last year’s final series, and many a judge thought he was unlucky not to win a Test debut in 2015, his form has gone to another level in 2016, once again peaking at the precise time for the Highlanders. If they go back-to-back from here, Dixon will have been a major contributor.
The Hurricanes standout was an easy one to pick. TJ Perenara had a hand in the first four of the ‘Canes six tries, and scored the fifth one himself in 59th minute, after which coach Chris Boyd gave him the early mark, with the home semi-final well and truly sorted.
His was exactly the sort of running and supporting game that Perenara has long been capable of, but hasn’t always shown, which in recent times has seen the likes of Tawera Kerr-Barlow and Brad Weber leapfrog him in the All Blacks pecking order. Perenara’s game on Saturday will have given the New Zealand selectors a very timely reminder, and the best kind of headache.
With Dane Coles suffering a nasty rib cartilage injury that will surely have him in doubt for the semi against the Chiefs, the Hurricanes needed their senior players to step up. Perenara stepped as high as he possibly could have, turning on the running game and spying openings that seemingly weren’t there with his superb vision and special awareness.
If there was a chance to counter-attack he did. A possible three-on-two inside the tramlines? No problem at all. Pinpoint passing to put a send a prop crashing over? Easy. It was easily his best game of 2016, and it might have covered most of his excellent work last year, too.
It would be very easy to rave about Lions centre Rohan Janse van Rensburg, and not just about his causing havoc with the Crusaders midfield, but about his season in general. He reminds me of Damien de Allende, but without the extreme inconsistency and the curious defensive decision making, and if he hasn’t played Test rugby by the end of the year, then we’ll know Alistair Coetzee obviously doesn’t share my view.
But it’s Elton Jantjies that draws the praise proper, after delivering exactly the kind of perfectly managed game that he’s always been capable of, but hasn’t always delivered. Even as recently as the end of May, I was pondering that Jantjies’ injury-forced layoff might actually be a good thing, because the poise of Marnitz Boshoff might actually serve the Lions better as the season went on.
Come the Ellis Park showdown with the Crusaders, though, Jantjies played exactly the sort of game you’d want from your flyhalf under pressure. He kicked superbly from both hand and tee, didn’t overplay his hand in attack, and combined superbly well with Faf de Klerk to unleash the attacking spark from van Rensburg and Lionel Mapoe in the centres, and the flyers in the back three.
And his decision making was great. Not long after halftime, the Crusaders narrowed the margin slightly, but soon after that the Lions found themselves deep in attack again. Jantjies found himself holding the ball just has penalty advantage was awarded, and before the Crusaders – and a few Lions, to be fair – could work out what was going on, Jantjies was running back toward halfway having just potted a drop goal.
I so want the Highlanders to go back-to-back, but gee it’s going to be hard to tip against the Lions this weekend – if I can tip against them at all. If Jantjies plays like he did for another 160 minutes (or maybe less, he was subbed after 75 minutes in this game), the Lions will be lifting the brand new Super Rugby trophy.
And I didn’t really know which Chief I’d pick when I started writing this – that’s how many quality performers they had in Cape Town, but in end it was James Lowe that stood out.
Lowe’s numbers only confirmed the impact I saw on the field. In all he had 12 carries for more than seven metres each time, three defenders beaten and two clean breaks, plus nine passes, an offload, and two try-assists, and a try for good measure. He also kicked seven times, finding good distance each time and tacking pressure off both Damien McKenzie and Aaron Cruden.
The roaming commission he plays with gives the Chiefs a nice unpredictability about their attack, and it means the defending teams can’t just be scanning the line to see where McKenzie pops up.
How the Chiefs fare heading to Wellington after returning from the Republic will be interesting, but if they manage to stun the home crowd for the second straight year in a knockout game, then I can see Lowe playing a major part.