The only team probably celebrating the Cheetahs’ loss in Canberra more than the Brumbies will be the Bulls, because it means they will now host the Australians this weekend in Pretoria, instead of facing the Crusaders, whose current form suggests it would take a miracle to beat them.
They dismantled the Reds, the 2011 champions, 38-9 in Christchurch, scoring four tries to none, with ace flyhalf Dan Carter contributing 20 points.
“We were just outclassed. The Crusaders were exceptional and I am sure they will be very hard to beat in the finals,” Reds scrumhalf Will Genia admitted.
Carter showed that he was back to his best ahead of the Rugby Championship, controlling the Crusaders game plan superbly and constantly probing the Reds defence as he took the ball to the line.
In contrast, much-hyped Reds flyhalf Quade Cooper was anonymous. Although he was impaired by the back-foot ball his forwards gave him, the fancy tricks his fans are so fond of look great but unless they’re produced on the gain-line and actually put other players into space, they are irrelevant. His critics will be able to point to what influence he actually has on the game.
An impressive start to the match saw the Crusaders take the ball through 15 phases and win an early penalty, and the display of precision led to an understandable nervousness amongst the Reds. That led to an abundance of basic errors by the visitors and then to a definite sense of panic.
An amazing exhibition of running lines and support play by the Crusaders – both forwards and backs – then exploited the holes in a retreating, disorganised defence.
The Crusaders pack was like an armoured vehicle ploughing through the Reds, such was their cohesion and the sheer ferocity they brought to the collisions and breakdowns.
The Crusaders also had the security of knowing that the Reds were really struggling to make any inroads against a steely defence that conceded just four line-breaks, allowed just four offloads and had a 92% tackling success rate.
In contrast, the Crusaders enjoyed making 15 line-breaks and 22 offloads.
If the Crusaders were an armoured vehicle, then the Cheetahs and Brumbies looked like milk delivery vans instead.
The Brumbies eventually won a messy, scrappy encounter 15-13 but the game never rose to any great heights.
The Cheetahs, playing in their first SuperRugby knockout game, seemed to freeze in a chilly Canberra and a host of errors meant they did not obtain any attacking momentum until the final quarter, by when they had left it too late.
Dropping the kickoff and then seeing star eighthman Philip van der Walt go down with a knee injury (he stayed on but was clearly hampered by it) and conceding a penalty all in the first minute made for a nervous start for the Cheetahs.
The game was there for the seizing by the Brumbies, but they were also unimpressive, wasting the possession and territorial advantage they had and only managing to score two penalties in the first half, with Christian Lealiifano missing another two shots badly.
There was one bright moment for the Cheetahs, however, with outside centre Johann Sadie crossing for a try after wing Raymond Rhule had burst through in midfield. There had been a forward pass from Willie le Roux in the build-up, but it was still a try of vision and clinical finishing.
There was little else in terms of attacking spark though from the Cheetahs. Scrumhalf Piet van Zyl was having an off-day and flyhalf Riaan Smit was not able to stamp his presence on the game either.
But then the platform given to the half-backs was not great either. The scrum was not the area of dominance for the Cheetahs it was expected to be and the apparent lack of homework done on the Brumbies scrum was disappointing.
Loosehead prop Coenie Oosthuizen was a pale shadow of the man who has buckled tightheads, carried the ball strongly and put in crunching tackles this season and there was no one in the starting line-up able to ignite the Cheetahs on the biggest day of their history as a franchise.
Until Van Zyl, having had no impact for an hour, was eventually replaced by Sarel Pretorius and no sooner had the livewire substitute scrumhalf come on than the Cheetahs suddenly roared into life.
They finally backed themselves with ball in hand and scored their second try when the inspired Pretorius threw a great pass out wide to replacement wing Rayno Benjamin, who knifed over in the corner.
Smit’s conversion attempt from the touchline to send the game into extra time looked a beauty, but it kept swinging until it passed outside the left upright by no more than a foot.
It was an agonising ending to the game for the Cheetahs, but the result was no more than they deserved after producing one of their worst performances of an otherwise wonderful season.