The ACT Brumbies and Wellington Hurricanes will head into the Super Rugby playoffs brimming with confidence after claiming rousing wins in their final round matches on Saturday.
A second-string Hurricanes side came back from a 19-point half-time deficit to grind down the Auckland Blues 29-24 at Wellington Regional Stadium and will return to their home ground next week for the quarter-finals.
A full-strength Brumbies later cruised to a 40-27 win over the Queensland Reds on a cold night at Canberra Stadium, notching six tries to secure their sixth successive win ahead of their own home quarter-final. Both the Brumbies and Hurricanes must await the results of the matches in South Africa to find out their quarter-final opponents.
The Bulls host the Lions at Loftus Versfeld with the Stormers taking on the Sharks at Newlands later on Saturday.
Both matches have implications for the final playoff positions.
Having already qualified for the postseason, the 2016 champion Hurricanes fielded a B-team at the ‘Cake-tin’ and it showed in the first half as they went to the break 24-5 down.
But after coach John Plumtree activated some experienced substitutions, the Hurricanes roared home with three unanswered tries while keeping the Blues scoreless.
“It was a bit of a tale of two halves, that’s for sure,” said Hurricanes captain Dane Coles, who made his first start since mid-March following a prolonged injury battle.
“Proud of the effort of the lads… We can kick on into the quarter-finals next week.”
Centre Peter Umaga-Jensen grabbed a try in each half, with play maker Fletcher Smith and lock Isaia Walker-Leawere crossing after the break.
Plumtree was beaming through the second half rally, safe in the knowledge that regular flyhalf Beauden Barrett and a raft of rested stars will be fresh for the quarter-final.
For the Leon MacDonald-coached Blues, their 10th defeat was a fitting ending for another underwhelming season.
Despite another coaching shakeup in the off season, the Blues finished bottom of the New Zealand conference with five wins and missed the playoffs for a ninth successive year.
The Brumbies conceded an early try in a slow start in Canberra but fired up after their skipper Christian Lealiifano was flattened 15 minutes in by a high tackle from Reds prop Taniela Tupou.
The ‘Tongan Thor’ was shown a yellow card and the referee cancelled a Reds try that came seconds after the tackle.
Reds enforcer Scott Higginbotham drew another yellow card after the half-time siren, only minutes after being injected when a groggy Lukhan Salakaia-Loto came off in the wake of a head-knock.
Andy Muirhead scored a try while Tupou was in the sin-bin, with Rory Arnold getting another while Higginbotham was off. Lachlan McCaffrey, Tom Wright and Murray Douglas also crossed for the Brumbies, the only Australian team to qualify for the playoffs.
Bryce Hegarty, Duncan Paia’aua and Liam Wright scored the tries for the Reds, who finished fourth in the Australian conference with six wins and farewelled Japan-bound skipper Samu Kerevi. “Obviously a dangerous game but I thought we turned up with a real nice mindset,” said Lealiifano. “I think there’s still some improvement within us so we’re pleased with how we’re performing at the moment … Hopefully we’ve got another few weeks left.
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