SYDNEY, Australia, Jul 21 – The defending champions Canterbury Crusaders demolished the Coastal Sharks as the NSW Waratahs staged a second-half comeback to reel in the Otago Highlanders and reach the Super Rugby semi-finals Saturday.
The Crusaders, in search of a ninth Super crown, underscored their status as competition favourites with a 40-10 thumping of South Africa’s Sharks in Christchurch.
The Waratahs, trailing 23-6 at half-time, stormed home to down the Highlanders 30-23 in Sydney and face either the Golden Lions or Argentina’s Jaguares in the last four.
Skipper Bernard Foley scored 25 points from two tries, three conversions and three penalties as the Waratahs shifted the game’s momentum with three tries in the space of seven second-half minutes.
The Crusaders scored five tries and a fortress-like defence restricted the Sharks to only one try to extend their current winning streak to 13 and they have now not lost at home to an overseas side since the opening round of 2015.
The Crusaders will host the Wellington Hurricanes next weekend in the semi-finals after the ‘Canes snatched a 32-31 win over the Waikato Chiefs in the first quarter-final on Friday.
In the clash of the top and bottom qualifiers into the top eight, the Sharks felt they still had a chance when they trailed by only 13 points with 25 minutes to play before the Crusaders ran in two late tries from long range.
But despite the razzle dazzle, rival captains Sam Whitelock and Ruan Botha agreed the Crusaders defence was a key difference.
“We always knew they would be big, strong and they carried very, very direct. I was just happy the boys stepped up, stayed nice and composed when it was quite tight in the middle,” Crusaders skipper Whitelock said.
Botha said the South Africans knew it would be a tough encounter.
“Hats off to them, their defence was strong and with their attacking play they just kept on running into holes, turning our backs and putting themselves into space.”
The Highlanders looked headed for victory after an impressive opening half with tries by winger Waisake Naholo and centre Rob Thompson and fly-half Lima Sopoaga kicking three penalties and two conversions.
But Naholo’s yellow card for a high tackle on prop Sekope Kepu in the 52nd minute swung the match with the Waratahs scoring 21 points to take the lead while he was off the field.
Kurtley Beale set up Foley’s first try with an inside ball and then made a break to send Israel Folau racing over.
Foley scored again off a Folau break and Foley’s penalty with nine minutes left kept the Waratahs seven points in front to the final whistle.
“The guys responded after half-time and showed belief in what we have done all year, it’s a helluva story,” Foley said.
“To play in front of our home crowd in what could possibly be our last game in this stadium (going to be demolished and rebuilt), that’s a special win for us.”
Highlanders captain Ben Smith was devastated by his team’s second-half collapse.
“That second half was not a good reflection of where we are at as a team, it’s a tough pill to swallow, we’re really gutted,” he said.