The ACT Brumbies kept Australian dreams alive Saturday with a huge second-half performance to down the Wellington Hurricanes and book a Super Rugby Pacific semi-final berth against the Auckland Blues.
The Canberra side prevented an all-New Zealand presence in the final four with their 35-25 victory on a freezing night, after the Blues beat the Otago Highlanders and the Waikato Chiefs crushed the Queensland Reds.
The ‘Canes breached the Brumbies defence in the 16th minute with Joshua Moorby finishing off an 18-phase move after Jordie Barrett found him in the corner with a cross-field kick.
But despite a red card to centre Len Ikitau for a high-tackle, the Brumbies refused to give up with Folau Fainga’a dotting down from a trademark rolling maul before Irae Simone found a gap in the defence to rock the visitors with two quick tries.
Moorby ran in his second of the night to send the ‘Canes to the break 22-15 in front. But the Brumbies struck back with two penalty goals from Noah Lolesio after the restart, before Tom Banks and Tom Wright crossed to seal a huge win.
“It was an awesome effort, we spoke about our finishers coming on in the last 20 minutes and doing the job for us and we definitely saw that tonight,” said Brumbies skipper Allan Alaalatoa.
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“It’s great for us moving forward into next week.”
They will face the Blues at Eden Park for a place in the final after the in-form Auckland side overcame a nervous start to race past the Highlanders 35-6.
Having qualified in top spot for the quarter-finals, the Blues looked rattled as they trailed 6-0 after half an hour. But they found their rhythm to power home, boosted by two tries to star playmaker Beauden Barrett.
They have now notched 14 straight victories, although they only discovered their attacking fluency after Highlanders hooker Andrew Makalio was shown a red card for a reckless, no-arms tackle midway through the first half.
Akira Ioane put the hosts in front, benefitting from a delightful assist from brother Rieko, before Barrett scythed across to establish a 14-6 lead at half-time.
They were not threatened in the second spell, creating tries for Barrett, AJ Lam and former rugby league international Roger Tuivasa-Sheck.
“We took a bit of time to find our groove but that’s probably expected,” said Barrett. “Around finals footy time, everyone can go into their shell but it’s great that we finally expressed ourselves.”
The Blues were without captain Dalton Papalii, who underwent surgery for appendicitis on Friday.
The in-form All Blacks loose forward is unlikely to feature in the finals and his availability for the Test series against Ireland in July is also in doubt.
The Highlanders, who only won four of 14 matches to reach the quarters, were also missing All Blacks star power, with half-back Aaron Smith having a groin problem.
Earlier, Chiefs captain Brad Weber crossed twice as his side outclassed the NSW Waratahs 39-15 in Hamilton to set up a semi-final against the 12-time champion Canterbury Crusaders, who swept past the Queensland Reds 37-15 on Friday.
Alongside halfback Weber’s double were tries to Luke Jacobson, Alex Nankivell and Pita Gus Sowakula.
Weber said the prospect of facing the Crusaders did not fluster him.
“What an awesome challenge to play the defending champs at home,” he said. “We’ve beaten them once this season so we’ll look to make it two.”
© Agence France-Presse