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Waratahs' big three take charge; Damian McKenzie's off night

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Waratahs skipper Bernard Foley says his side have work to do at (0:28)

Waratahs skipper Bernard Foley says his side have work to do at lineout time and at the breakdown, but has every confidence his side has the "belief" to fight back in any situation. Video by Sam Bruce (0:28)

And then there were four. A thrilling weekend of quarterfinal action ended in victories to the Hurricanes, Crusaders, Waratahs and Lions, the Christchurch encounter the only result that appeared certain with 20 minutes to play.

Next week's semifinals see the Crusaders host the Hurricanes and the Waratahs travel to Johannesburg to face the Lions. Both games are Saturday night (AEST).

Hurricanes 31-30 Chiefs

The Hurricanes and Chiefs produced yet another all-Kiwi classic on Friday in Wellington with the hosts picking the ideal moment to emerge from their post-June slump.

Returning from the Test window - and for a couple of weeks before it - the 2016 champions hadn't quite been the same side that dominated the first half of the competition. But building on the back of Julian Savea's try, gift-wrapped in the first minute by Damian McKenzie, the hosts did just enough to deny the Chiefs a fourth straight win and end the Waikato franchise's season.

Forty-eight seconds was all it took for Savea to pluck McKenzie's pass out of the air and sprint 45 metres for the game's opener; the Chiefs playmaker would later offer up another opportunity for Savea, only this time it wouldn't result in seven points.

While McKenzie had a rare off night, Hurricanes halfback TJ Perenara was at his usual livewire best. Perenara bagged himself a double by crossing either side of halftime, in what was a brilliant battle with opposite Brad Weber.

The veteran scrum-half may not have been able to wrestle the All Blacks No.9 jersey from Aaron Smith, but has been the equal of Smith - if not better - in Super Rugby for much of the past few seasons. It was Perenara's second that again put the Hurricanes clear at 25-17 and when Ben Lam crossed with 10 minutes remaining, the game was all but gone.

Two late tries, after the sin-binning of Vaea Fifita, added some respectability to the scoreline for the Chiefs but they were unable to repeat the clinical performances of the last few weeks in Wellington. It would be wrong to blame McKenzie given the scintillating transition he has made to the No.10 jersey, but Friday's game certainly won't be one he looks back on with fondness.

McKenzie will continue at fly-half over the next few years and is obviously the anointed back-up to Beauden Barrett at Test level. But it's clear the All Blacks selectors want to see some improvements, Grant Fox telling New Zealand's Radio LIVE McKenzie needs to make "better choices".

"The cutout passes aren't helpful," Fox told Radio LIVE's Sunday Sport. "There's a time and a place for them but there have been too many intercepts passes this season, including in a Test or two.

"He just needs to perhaps make better choices. At times there's a player outside him and the better play is just to hit him, let that guy carry, set another phase and then go again."

Crusaders 40-10 Sharks

This Crusaders team is ruthless. There is just no room for error when you play them, and the Sharks paid the ultimate price for their blunders in Christchurch on Saturday.

The Sharks made three mistakes in the opening 12 minutes of the match and it led to 13 points for the Crusaders. They also butchered a try halfway through the first half when flank Phillip van der Walt dropped a routine pass with the tryline at his mercy.

It's hard enough playing the Crusaders in Christchurch, and for the Sharks to shoot themselves in the foot like they did is almost unforgivable.

The defending champions, on the other hand, showed why they are clearly the best team in the competition this year. They are clinical on attack. Whether it's from first phase, turnover ball or just showing the patience when going through the phases, they always seem to make the right decisions and execute brilliantly.

The New Zealanders feed off the opposition's mistakes like vultures, but it's their work on defence and their relentless fight for the ball at the breakdown that help create these chances. Their set pieces are also running like clockwork and it's hard to see anyone beating them before this competition is done.

Waratahs 30-23 Highlanders

You could have forgiven the Highlanders team manager for peaking at flight options to Johannesburg at halftime on Saturday night, such was their first-half dominance of the Waratahs. But then the Waratahs' big three decided to switch on and it was instead NSW heading to the airport early Sunday morning.

Unable to get any sort of a foothold, with their forward pack given a breakdown masterclass by the Highlanders, Israel Folau, Kurtley Beale and Bernard Foley were virtual spectators in the opening half at Allianz Stadium; Folau's only memorable moment a dreadful forward pass that sailed into touch.

But when Highlanders winger Waisake Naholo was sin-binned in the 52nd minute, it was the star Wallabies duo who stepped up and spearheaded one of the great comebacks in Waratahs history. Having seen their 29-0 lead slip away in Christchurch, this time it was the Waratahs who rode an unstoppable wave of momentum.

Beale may have his defensive faults, as Greg Growden alluded to last week, but he remains one of the most brilliant attacking players when his team are on the front foot. Suddenly Beale needs only the smallest of spaces to exploit a defensive mismatch, which created the first two Waratahs' tries during their stirring resurgence.

For the Waratahs' first, he straightened the line of attack beautifully in squaring up two Highlanders defenders; shaping to pass to Foley before running hard at the hole, the delayed pass was enough to put Foley in under the posts. Then, a mere three minutes later, it was Beale's speed that saw him beat his defender on the outside at which point he then fended off Teihorangi Walden's attempted tackle on the opposite shoulder.

Folau would be the beneficiary of Beale's break on that occasion, before the fullback laid on Foley's second with a surging run downfield and two perfect right-foot steps; an offload to the dogged Nick Phipps could have seen the play break down, but the No.9 quickly propped and found a free-running Foley on a sprint to the line.

While it came against 14 men, the sparkling attacking sequence had a disappointing Sydney crowd on its feet and surely must have brought Wallabies boss and title-winning Waratahs coach Michael Cheika up out of his seat, too. If Cheika can come up with a plan to solve the Wallabies' midfield defensive frailties, the attack should take care of itself.

While the Waratahs' "big three" executed the plays that drove the comeback, Foley reserved special mention for his halves Phipps at fulltime. The NSW No.9 wasn't blemish free - a hilariously-poor box-kick that found Ned Hanigan's bottom one notable error - but he was at his determined best in winning several overthrown lineouts that quickly turned into Waratahs attacks.

"I think the turning point was probably Nick diving on that ball, there were a couple of loose balls off over the back of the lineout," Foley said. "Nick showed some great intent there and swung the momentum."

Lions 40-23 Jaguares

The Lions needed fly-half Elton Jantjies to take control against the Jaguares and he produced a fine all-round performance at Ellis Park. But even his performance was overshadowed by the hulking Malcolm Marx.

The Springboks hooker is one of the best rugby players on the planet at the moment, and again illustrated his importance to the Lions' cause with massive, all-action 70 minutes of rugby.

Marx tackled, stole a plethora of balls at the breakdown, scrummed hard and even scored a try when he intercepted a pass. He came off the field on Saturday looking a bit worse for wear, but the Lions will need him fresh and ready to go against the Waratahs if they want to make a third successive Super Rugby final.

The Jaguares will take a lot out of their first Super Rugby playoff match. They gave a good account of themselves and had the Lions chasing shadows midway through the second half.

However, their discipline remains a problem, and that helped the home team secure victory.