Ruan Combrinck the saviour as Lions stay on course for Super Rugby showdown with the Crusaders
The season’s best two sides post quarter-final wins, as do the Hurricanes and the Chiefs
Leading contenders the Golden Lions and Canterbury Crusaders are one game away from playing off for this season’s Super Rugby title after contrasting victories this weekend.
South Africa’s Lions, who finished top of the regular season standings, needed a huge late penalty goal from Ruan Combrinck to scrape home 23-21 over the Coastal Sharks in Johannesburg.
The Lions will face a New Zealand team for the first time this season, against defending champions Wellington Hurricanes, in next weekend’s semi-finals. If the Lions win they will host the final on August 5.
The Crusaders, bidding for their eighth Super Rugby crown, ground out a 17-0 win over the Otago Highlanders in driving rain to reach the last four.
The Crusaders have to negotiate an all-New Zealand semi-final against the Waikato Chiefs to advance to the final.
Shaun Stevenson scored a try four minutes from time to seal a 17-11 win for the Chiefs over South Africa’s Western Stormers in Cape Town to claim their semi-final spot.
The Lions, beaten only once this season, were facing a shock elimination at Ellis Park until Combrinck landed an angled 58-metre kick under massive pressure to squeeze his side home over the Sharks.
The Sharks, dismissed as no-hopers after a 17-point regular-season home loss to the Lions the previous weekend, built a 14-3 half-time lead and were one point ahead when Combrinck struck.
The Crusaders scored two tries in wild weather to overcome the Highlanders in the South Island derby.
“It was hugely satisfying,” coach Scott Robertson said. “It was a final, that was what we talked about because the Highlanders are better than a seventh-placed team. We knew we had to treat it as we did, and front up.”
The result keeps alive the Crusaders’ dream of adding to their record seven Super Rugby titles, their most recent success coming in 2008.
The Hurricanes scored 20 unanswered points in a dominant second half to keep alive their title hopes and end Australia’s ACT Brumbies bid in Canberra.
The Hurricanes were relentless, overcoming a 16-15 half-time deficit in a 35-16 victory to reach the semi-finals.
“We knew they would come out with a lot of emotion and intent and we worked hard in the first half and came away with building pressure in the second half,” All Black ace fly half Beauden Barrett said.
It was an emotional comeback to rugby for cancer survivor Christian Lealiifano, who came on in the second half as a replacement for the Brumbies.
Hurricanes skipper TJ Perenara paid a post-match tribute to Lealiifano: “I want to congratulate Christian for coming back.
“Everyone focuses on the game and the result, but when men like that come back with the fight he’s had, it’s humbling to be around him and he’s inspiring not just to his team but to the rest of the rugby community.”
The Hurricanes’ biggest win in Canberra extended New Zealand teams’ record over Australian opposition to 26-0 this season.
The Chiefs survived some late pressure from the Stormers before hanging on for victory in South Africa.
Substitute winger Stevenson gathered a long pass from skipper and fly half Aaron Cruden to cross the line unopposed for the Chiefs’ clinching try.
“We are a team of warriors with a clear game plan that we try to execute whenever and wherever we play,” All Black Cruden said.
“The Crusaders in Christchurch is going to be a tough test, but we can beat any Super Rugby team anywhere on our day.”