The Otago Highlanders took their chances ruthlessly to dethrone the New South Wales Waratahs with a 35-17 victory on Saturday that set up the first all-New Zealand Super XV final since 2006.
Tries from Aaron Smith and Richard Buckman in the first half combined with a Waisake Naholo effort, a penalty try and a late Patrick Osborne score after the break sent the Highlanders to Wellington to face the Hurricanes next Saturday.
Reigning champions the Waratahs had a first-half try from Rob Horne and 12 points from the boot of flyhalf Bernard Foley, but were error-prone where the Highlanders were clinical in front of 32,632 spectators at the Allianz Stadium.
“We know how hard it is to play against the Waratahs over here,” Highlanders fullback Ben Smith said. “I think we got it right, but we have another big challenge next week.”
Horne’s 11th-minute try from Foley’s cross-kick was a rare moment of class from the Waratahs in the first half, but it failed to settle their nerves.
The Highlanders were back in front eight minutes later when scrumhalf Smith intercepted Wycliff Palu’s pass off the back of a defensive scrum and touched down.
Two Foley penalties put the home side 11-8 up, but the Highlanders struck back again after 33 minutes when Buckman ran through a succession of tacklers to score.
Another Foley penalty got the Waratahs to within a point at 15-14 at the break, and his fourth 11 minutes after the interval put them in front.
It all completely fell apart for the reigning champions over the next 10 minutes.
Winger Naholo brilliantly touched down just inside the dead-ball line from his own chip for his 12th try of the season and two minutes later the Highlanders were awarded a penalty try, which Lima Sopoaga converted to give the visitors a 27-17 lead.
Osborne had been held up just before the line by flanker Jacques Potgieter, but referee Craig Joubert decided his fellow South African had done so illegally with a swinging arm into the face of the Highlanders winger.
Potgieter also got 10 minutes in the sin-bin, during which time the Waratahs failed to get out of their own half, but little changed when they were back to 15 men and Osborne crossed from Sopoaga’s cross-kick to seal the win two minutes from time.
“We really didn’t get into a rhythm,” Waratahs skipper Dave Dennis said. “They kicked well, they starved us of possession. Our set piece was not as good as it should have been and it is very hard to win football matches when you don’t have the ball.”
In Wellington, Brothers Ardie and Julian Savea scored tries either side of halftime to help propel the Wellington Hurricanes to a 29-9 victory over the ACT Brumbies on Saturday and into their first Super XV final since 2006.
Scrumhalf T.J. Perenara and replacement winger Matt Proctor also scored for the home side, who are still mourning the death of former All Blacks and Hurricanes loose forward Jerry Collins earlier this month following a car crash in France.
Flyhalf Christian Lealiifano (two) and fullback Jesse Mogg slotted penalties for the visitors, who could do little to shut down the high-octane attack from the home side.
Renowned for his bone-jarring tackles, Collins would have been proud of his former team as they withstood a torrid opening five minutes from the visitors and then, as they have done so consistently all season, simply got into their work.
The pack took the ball forward and committed defenders before the backline, sparked by new All Blacks winger Nehe Milner-Skudder, made breaks out wide.
That relentless pressure eventually told and winger Julian Savea was able to barrel over to open the scoring in the 21st minute before Perenara then finished off another break from Milner-Skudder for his 11th try of the season.
Beauden Barrett converted to give the Hurricanes a 12-0 lead that was cut to 12-3 when Mogg landed his penalty after the halftime hooter had sounded.
Openside flanker Ardie Savea crashed over shortly after the break from a rolling maul to give the home side a 19-3 cushion.
Lealiifano then kicked two penalties to drag the Brumbies back into the game before the Hurricanes seized control of the contest for the final quarter, with Proctor scoring their fourth try with seven minutes remaining.
The Hurricanes are to host Saturday’s final against the Highlanders.
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