Once again, the ACT Brumbies carry Australian hopes into the Super Rugby Pacific semi-finals

WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) – For the third season in a row, the ACT Brumbies will carry Australian hopes to the Super Rugby Pacific semi-finals.

They face the Auckland-based Blues at Eden Park on Friday, while the Wellington-based Hurricanes play the Hamilton-based Chiefs in an all-New Zealand semi-final on Saturday.

The Brumbies have traveled to New Zealand in the semi-finals in the last two years, losing to the Blues 20-19 at Eden Park in 2022 and 19-6 in Hamilton.

With each of those defeats, the Brumbies have added to their worst record of any Australian team without a playoff win in New Zealand in 17 attempts. This year they will face an in-form Blues side who have lost just twice in 13 matches, have an excellent defensive record and a difference in points in the competition.

New head coach Vern Cotter has added an element to the Blues’ game that has been missing for some time: toughness, which is most evident in their defensive intensity and their no-frills style. The Blues enjoy scoring tries from lineout drives and face play, as do their All Black wingers Caleb Clarke and Mark Delia.

The Blues tend to slip out of the game at times, as they did early in the second half in last weekend’s quarter-final against Fijian Trua. They don’t always end well.

They will be hit hard on Friday by the absence of captain Patrick Tuipulodu, who suffered a knee injury last weekend, and they are likely to be without All Blacks back Akira Ioane, who is also injured and in his last season with the Blues. Moving to Japan.

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The Brumbies reached the semi-finals after beating the Dunedin-based Highlanders 32-16 over four quarters in Canberra. They were under pressure throughout the first half and trailed 16-15 at halftime. But tries either side of half-time gave them a lead which they defended in the second half with the Highlanders not scoring.

A repeat of that performance won’t be enough to beat the Blues. They need to find another gear, or a twist to their more measured gameplan to surprise the Blues.

„The experience of the last two years will be huge for us,” Brumbies captain Alan Alalatova said. “Last year and the year before, it was the first time the boys had gone to New Zealand and had an experience like playing at Eden Park.

„So we’re going to depend on those experiences from the boys who have been there.”

The clash between the Hurricanes and Chiefs in Wellington looks closer than the respective first and fourth seeds.

The Chiefs scored 28 points in the first 23 minutes of the quarter-final against the Queensland Reds, while the Hurricanes took 25 minutes to score their first points against the Melbourne Rebels. Those starts are dangerous for repeated hurricanes.

The Chiefs lost to the Crusaders in each of the semifinals the past two years and in last year’s final. That’s another advantage over the Hurricanes, who lost to the Brumbies in the quarter-finals in 2022 and 2023.

The Hurricanes are in transition this season under first season head coach Clark Laidlaw. They have built the momentum of the tournament most of the season and have finished the regular season on schedule.

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They will need to do so again on Saturday to advance to their first final since 2016. The Hurricanes beat the Chiefs twice during the regular season and will take some confidence from those contests.

„The Hurricanes have set the pace in this year’s tournament, earned the right to have home advantage through the finals and will again be formidable opposition in front of a large home crowd,” Chiefs coach Clayton McMillan said. „They’re a well-balanced team, riding with a lot of confidence. They’ll be tough nuts to crack as we’ve already experienced twice this year.

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AP Rugby: https://apnews.com/hub/rugby

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