Super Rugby review: Brumbies must be rewarded within Wallabies squad

Just four teams remain in Super Rugby with home teams the Crusaders, Jaguares, Hurricanes and Brumbies all triumphing, as expected, at the weekend.

While three of the four contests were tight encounters for 40 minutes at least, the hosts proved too slick on each occasion in pulling away from the Highlanders, Chiefs, Bulls and Sharks in the second-half.

Read on for some of the big talking points from the quarterfinals.

CRUSADERS 38-14 HIGHLANDERS

As night follows day, the Crusaders won another playoff game at home in Christchurch to kick off Super Rugby's quarterfinals. The 38-14 victory over the Highlanders extended their unbeaten playoff run in Christchurch to 21 games, and left the other three semi-finalists, particularly the Hurricanes, searching for answers that perhaps don't even exist.

But the Crusaders didn't have it all their own way on Friday night, the Highlanders trailing their Southern rivals by just three points at the break after an enthralling first 40 minutes in which both sides had scored two tries.

The turning point came just five minutes upon the resumption however when highlanders back-rower and likely All Blacks No. 6 Liam Squire saw yellow for a shoulder charge in which he made no effort to wrap an arm.

It was an inexplicably bad decision from Squire given the TMO's broad job description in the modern game, and an opportunity the Crusaders weren't going to miss to put the Highlanders away.

The hosts took just three minutes to grab the first of two five-pointers while Squire could only sit and watch from the sidelines; Michael Alaalatoa's effort taking the lead out to 17 points, a margin that was always going to be too great for the Highlanders to bridge.

Squire's tackle is unlikely to affect his All Blacks chances but he will no doubt be warned about discipline before the World Cup where a 10-minute stint on the sidelines will be just as game-changing as it was on Friday night.

The Crusaders were ruthless in Squire's absence and had earlier rolled off the back of another stellar display from fly-half Richie Mo'unga. The Crusaders playmaker finished with a try in each half, a further try-assist following a beautiful ball that put David Havili under the sticks, and a total of 23 points.

The nine-time champions' unbeaten home playoff run, which extends right back to Super Rugby's inception, has been built across the now derelict Jade Stadium and Christchurch Stadium which has been the Crusaders' home since the 2011 earthquake.

The Hurricanes have the chance to halt that run at 21 games but having been so comprehensively beaten on both occasions earlier this year, and only just surviving a determined Bulls challenge on Saturday, they will have to improve significantly to worry the Crusaders.

They say history is there to be broken, but the Hurricanes, and either the Jaguares or Brumbies, will need a wrecking ball to smash through this amazing Christchurch playoff record.

JAGUARES 21-16 CHIEFS

This season of records continues for the Jaguares: A first South African Super Rugby conference title, a first home quarterfinal, and now a first semifinal - at home against the Brumbies - the result of a strong and resolute defensive performance against the Chiefs in Buenos Aires.

The Jaguares are best known for their striker play out wide, but they have also generally been strong without the ball all season; this defensive effort was different in intensity and execution from the opening kick-off - with Guido Petti stealing the ball from Angus Ta'avau as the Chiefs attempted to run from their own 22, as they had done with such success in defeating the Crusaders and the Rebels in their previous two fixtures. The Jaguares went left, and three phases later Pablo Matera - one of their players of the match, and certainly among their players of the season -- was driven over to join Kwagga Smith and Daniel du Preez atop the list of try-scoring backrowers for the season.

The Chiefs recovered, and they led 10-8 at halftime, and 16-8 shortly afterwards, after Lachlan Boshier went over under the posts for a converted try, after a sublime dummy and dart from behind a ruck by Brad Weber, and Jack Debreczeni and Marty McKenzie combined for three penalties; but truth be told the Jaguares always looked to be in control with their partisan support, even when they were eight points behind, and the Chiefs never again looked like breaking the shackles.

Mattias Moroni scored the Jaguares' second try after a spell of pressure, crossing untouched on the left wing and going round under the posts after Joaquin Diaz Bonilla had spotted the space out wide; the fly-half called for the ball and cut out the centre for the roaming Matera to advance, draw and pass to his winger.

Diaz Bonilla landed two more penalties to ice the game, but this was won by the Jaguares on the D not from the tee. There was a spell in their 22, late in the game, when they resisted the Chiefs for 15 phases, and then again, after the siren, their wall held so firm that the visitors, so effective all season in creating broken field-running opportunities, were unable to get out of their own 22 before finally conceding the turnover penalty from which the hosts finished the game.

Sam Cane, the Chiefs captain, acknowledged the pressure that the Jaguares had brought to bear, saying the hosts "won because they defended better than us".

"The pressure they put on us forced errors and penalties... they attacked aggressively at the breakdowns, which often prevented us winning quick ball, and if they continue to play like this they are going to be hard to stop."

They certainly will be tough to beat against the Brumbies, with their squad against the Chiefs featuring 14 Argentina internationals in the starting side with seven more on the bench. And before you ask: Mayco Vivas was the only non-Pumas player in the starting side, and the loosehead completed 10 tackles, equal second-best among the Jaguares, behind Pablo Matera.

HURRICANES 35-28 BULLS

The Hurricanes will front up in Christchurch to face the Crusaders in the Super Rugby semfinals for the second time in as many years, having held out the Bulls in Wellington.

They will likely be relieved more than anything, at this point, to have progressed past the South African side; the Canes appeared to be putting their visitors away with ease, first at 27-7 and then at 29-14, each time after Salesi Rayasi had scored, only for their opponents to show spirit and power and no little skill to stretch their hosts to breaking point as they sought the converted try that would have secured a third draw in as many away fixtures in New Zealand.

Such a result, which would have seen extra-time in Wellington, would have fair enough, too, for the Bulls gave every bit as much as they got; they scored quality tries through Warrick Gelant and Cornal Hendricks, and the latter was denied a third only by the outstretched right hand of Rayasi that otherwise delivered a penalty try for the Bulls and a yellow card for the Hurricanes' replacement winger.

There is also no little irony in the final act of the game being played out by Hendricks, among the very best players on the field, who dropped the ball on the Canes' 22 after the siren, after the Bulls had put the ball through increasingly dangerous phases having won a lineout on their hosts' throw; the winger still had work to do even had he taken the ball cleanly, for he did not have an empty run to the line, but he was at pace and certainly would have been full of confidence after standing up Rayasi and Jordie Barrett to score his tries previously.

The Hurricanes also scored superb tries, through T.J. Perenara, Ben Lam and Rayasi, albeit the Bulls will lament the lead-up to both of the latter's scores: The Canes took a quick lineout to start the phases for the first, after Hendricks had just failed to haul in a deft chip over the defence from Handre Pollard, and the Bulls were never set thereafter; they then capitalised clinically once the ball bounced favourably after Pollard had miscalculated the flight of Beauden Barrett's clearing kick. That's rugby, and the best sides capitalise on every opportunity.

The Bulls may reflect that they let slip an opportunity here - and Nick Mallett in SuperSport's post-match analysis in South Africa suggested the Canes had also benefitted from at least two key "hometown" decisions in the second half -- but in truth the Canes always looked to have an extra gear in their locker, even if star performers Ngani Laumape and the Barrett brothers were quiet when judged by their own spectacularly high performances.

One home player who was not quiet, however, was Ardie Savea: The one-man back-row was irrepressible in tallying 10 runs for 47 metres, two defenders beaten, two clean breaks, and 14 passes - more than any Hurricanes player bar Perenara. He was also a key ever-presence at the breakdown, completing two turnovers including the one at the death, in his own 22, under the posts, that secured a penalty to be kicked clear for a lineout that - if won - would have ended the match; it was not Savea's fault that the Bulls' lock R.G. Snyman snaffled the throw to launch the final assault that the hosts somehow withstood.

And, so, to Christchurch, where the Hurricanes will be underdogs but likely much better for have been tested to the limit in their last home game of the season.

BRUMBIES 38-13 SHARKS

The Brumbies bolted out of the gates in Canberra on Saturday night to set up a seventh straight win and a first Super Rugby semifinal since 2015.

Pete Samu's first-minute try, via a deft inside ball from in-form lock Rory Arnold, set the Brumbies on their way and when the Wallabies back-rower made it a double, either side of Henry Speight's farewell five-pointer, the Brumbies were well and truly on their way to Buenos Aires for a showdown with the Jaguares.

The Brumbies dominated all but a 10-minute period after the break when Sharks centre Andre Esterhuizen powered over from close range, but the visitors otherwise had no answer to a resolute Brumbies defensive line that shut down their opponents attack with ease. The Australians sparkled in attack themselves and must surely be headed for a huge Wallabies representation when Michael Cheika settles on his Rugby World Cup squad.

While the front-row of Scott Sio, Folau Fainga'a and Alan Alaalatoa have been rusted-on first-choice Wallabies for much of the season, so too Rory Arnold and Tevita Kuridrani; the likes of Tom Banks, skipper Christian Leali'ifano and Pete Samu are now making compelling cases to be run-on selections for the Rugby Championship, at least.

Add to that scrum-half Joe Powell, lock Sam Carter, back-rower Rob Valetini and wingers Henry Speight and Toni Pulu, who must all be pushing for wider squad selection when it looked like they may miss out through the middle of the season, and you have a Brumbies team that is playing with supreme confidence and has its backs and forwards playing together in complete harmony.

Arnold's inside ball for Samu set the tone for a dominant 80 minutes, before the towering lock, who is in Brodie Retallick-like form, played link man for Speight's try on the 10-minute mark.

Samu's second came from a lineout, the back-rower grabbing a rare driving maul try that wasn't awarded to hooker Fainga'a, while scrum-halves Powell and Matt Lucas closed out proceedings with darts to the line that had an improved GIO Stadium crowd on its feet.

The only sore point on an otherwise brilliant night for the Brumbies was news that Samu would miss the trip to Buenos Aires with a hamstring injury. Samu had enjoyed a sensational first half before he chased after his own kick right on halftime, his 74 run metres second only to Tom Banks despite the back-rower seeing just 40 minutes of action.

The Brumbies are now en route to Argentina, having jumped on a bus from Canberra to Sydney at 6am Sunday morning, for a date with the Jaguares who they will meet Saturday morning [AEST]. The Argentines weren't without their struggles against the Chiefs, having trailed 16-8 10 minutes into the second half, while the Brumbies were certainly right in the contest when they lost 20-15 at the Estadio Jose Amalfatini in Round 10.

Lachie McCaffrey or Jahrome Hughes will be the likely contenders to fill Samu's place in the back-row, but as fellow loose forward Tom Cusack told ESPN last week, the Brumbies have complete confidence in whatever trio coach Dan McKellar settles on, and the varied game plan that will have the Jaguares guessing.