Super Rugby
Scrum5: Super Rugby Podcast and Video
Andy Withers and Brittany Mitchell
June 29, 2015
The Hurricanes confirmed their status as grand final favourites (video available only in Australia)

The Super Rugby semi-finals provided fans with entertaining rugby as the two New Zealand sides secured both grand final berths. The Hurricanes were too powerful in all facets for a tired Brumbies side, while the Highlanders ended the Waratahs' bid for back-to-back titles with a truly great finals performance that was overshadowed unfairly by two controversial refereeing calls that favoured the South Island stars.

Hurricanes 29-9 Brumbies

The Highlanders' Ash Dixon and Richard Buckman celebrate victory with fans, Waratahs v Highlanders, Super Rugb, Allianz Stadium, Sydney, June 27, 2015
Highlanders celebrate victory with fans © Getty Images

The Hurricanes reminded everyone why they had topped the minor premiership - as if anyone could have forgotten a season's efforts in their one-week bye - producing a dynamic and powerful performance that encapsulated everything with which they had recorded a 14-2 win-loss record. They were powerful up front in recording a perfection in the set-piece, including 13 lineouts plus one steal against the best in the competition, and then showed how to use the ball dynamically to shred the Brumbies - who missed a horrendous 35 tackles.

But the Hurricanes weren't perfect with ball in hand, with any number of handling errors in their high-octane offloading game. They bombed at least three try-scoring opportunities in the opening quarter, when they may well have put the game to bed even before the Brumbies had woken up, and Brett McKay, ESPN's man at the Cake Tin on Saturday, noted that Chris Boyd and Conrad Smith were a pretty happy coach and captain in saying "they left a lot of points out there in the first half"; that's a scary thought for the Highlanders to consider, as it the knowledge that Beauden Barrett was rusty disappointing if not downright poor in just his second game in six due to a knee injury.

Ma'a Nonu and Smith were strong as ever in shutting down the opposition while running hard and straight with ball in hand to create space for Nehe Milner-Skudder and Julian Savea, and TJ Perenara once again showed his innate knowledge of who to follow - and when - in order to find a clean run to the tryline. But the star of the night was undoubtedly Ardie Savea, who produced a man-of-the match performance at the breakdown and with his running in the loose to show the All Blacks have yet another heir to the No.7 jumper.

The Brumbies were poor, totally unable to threaten or pressure the Canes between their initial thrust from the kick-off and their desperate breakout for a consolation score after the siren; saying that, they were probably only as good as the Canes allowed them to be. They were brilliant against a disappointing Stormers in Cape Town the week before, but they were incapable of matching that against the title favourites.

The Hurricanes paid tribute to Jerry Collins before the Super Rugby semi-final in Wellington © Getty Images

Waratahs 17-35 Highlanders

The Highlanders scored 20 points in the final 30 minutes to secure victory (video available only in Australia)

The Highlanders produced their best performance of the season after Jamie Joseph developed an atypical game plan that saw the visitors kick more often than at any time this season - 35 kicks from hand, compared with the Waratahs' 17 - to keep turning around the Waratahs and play the game deep in blue territory while denying their hosts space to run the ball. Most surprisingly, the Highlanders' unheralded forwards dominated their Test-laden rivals in the set-piece and at the breakdown; in hindsight, the only surprise on the night was that the Waratahs led 17-15 with 30 minutes to play.

For all that dominance of possession and territory and fantastic movement with ball-in-hand to post their final three tries - including Waisake Naholo's amazing effort to win a foot race and pound the ball down just before the dead-ball line after he had kicked ahead off the back of great phase play - the Highlanders' opening two five-pointers through Aaron Smith and Richard Buckman featured more than a little fortune and their victory will be marred unfairly by two key calls from referee Craig Joubert; the South African awarded Buckman's try after most people in the ground and watching on television thought the centre had been tackled before taking to his feet again to run another 35 metres to cross in the corner, and he later awarded a penalty try and yellow-carded Jacques Potgieter for a swinging arm that, the referee judged, had prevented Patrick Osborne from scoring after fine attacking play. The latter decision saw the Highlanders 10 points clear of the defending champions, who were clearly deflated, and Lima Sopoaga's drop goal and the final-minute try from Osborne simply iced a wonderful performance.

The Highlanders now head to Wellington to face the Hurricanes in what could be a barnburner, while the defeated Australian teams can only look to 2016, when both will be without a departing number of key players such as Nic White, Jesse Mogg, Adam Ashley-Cooper and Wycliff Palu; the Tahs will also be without coach Michael Cheika, and both Australian teams may yet have to consider their title windows are closing if not closed.

More immediately, Cheika and Stephen Larkham, the Waratahs and Brumbies coaches, will now combine to oversee Australia's Rugby Championship and Rugby World Cup campaigns perhaps full of concern after their two teams, who will supply the lions' share of the Wallabies squad, were brushed aside so easily in the biggest game of their respective seasons. Cheika also must consider whether rugby - particularly Test rugby - has evolved beyond his "Cheikaball" dynamic that secured the 2014 Super Rugby title as his absence of a tangible Plan B left his 2015 Waratahs a weaker and one-dimensional outfit.

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd

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