Who would have thought that three teams placed outside the top eight heading into the final round of Super Rugby would qualify for the quarter-finals?
The Sharks, Chiefs and Highlanders were ranked 9th, 10th and 11th respectively before this weekend’s matches.
It was a simple equation but a difficult challenge for the Sharks: win against the Stormers in Cape Town and they would leap-frog the home side into the playoffs. The Sharks, of course, accomplished this feat with a 12-8 victory, but it took until after the final hooter had sounded.
The permutations were a bit more complex for the Chiefs and especially the Highlanders.
The Highlanders did all they could in their 49-12 win over the Waratahs to give themselves a chance of making the finals. Their qualification, however, hinged on either the Chiefs beating the Rebels but not by more than two tries, or the Lions failing to pick up any competition points against the Bulls in Pretoria.
While the Chiefs thrashed the Rebels 59-8, the Bulls were the Highlanders’ saviours, accounting for the Lions 48-27.
After the smoke had cleared, the Sharks, Chiefs and Highlanders had all jumped ahead of the Lions, Stormers and Rebels to clinch unlikely playoff spots.
This weekend’s results have now created some interesting storylines for the finals series.
Can anyone knock the Crusaders off their perch?
The Crusaders may still be run-away favourites for the title, but they’ll likely have to overcome at least two New Zealand sides to do it. The Crusaders have never lost a finals match in Christchurch and they have an 89% success rate in all matches at home. This win rate at home against fellow New Zealand sides, however, is sitting closer to 75%.
If any team other than the Crusaders are to win 2019’s competition, then many would have suggested that it would take a New Zealand side to knock them over at home. That’s now entirely possible (though still somewhat unlikely).
Two unique clashes to savour
Super Rugby’s curious structure means each team plays only 12 of the 14 other competitors during the regular season. That quirk means that the Brumbies and Sharks, who will meet in Canberra for a quarter-final, are yet to play one another this season. The same is true for the Hurricanes and the Bulls, who will meet in Wellington on Saturday night.
In contrast, Friday night would be the third time that the Crusaders and Highlanders meet this season, were it not for the fact that their first game of the season was called off.
Six of last year’s quarter-finalists have again made the cut this season. This weekend will mark the sixth time in seven years that the Brumbies have made the knockout rounds of Super Rugby but they didn’t feature last season – nor did the Bulls. 2019 will actually be the first time that the Bulls have qualified for the finals since 2013. Ironically, they lost to the Brumbies in a home playoff that year.
The Chiefs have now made the qualifiers for the eighth season in a row. This is the second-best streak of all time, with the Crusaders qualifying for thirteen years on the trot between 2002 and 2014. The Highlanders have also qualified every year since 2014.
Rematch in Buenos Aires
South Africa conference winners the Jaguares will host the Chiefs for the second time this season when they duke it out on Friday evening (Argentina time). When the two teams clashed earlier in the year, the Chiefs managed to score in the final five minutes to earn an unlikely victory away from home. At the time, it was only the Chiefs’ second win of the season.
Both the Jaguares and the Chiefs have significantly improved in the weeks since that fixture; the Jaguares are on a five-match winning streak while the Chiefs have seen co-captains Sam Cane and Brodie Retallick return from injury in the last month. The Jaguares have never made it to the semi-final stages of the competition and this weekend will mark their first home qualifier match.
New Zealand still top of the pops
For all the talk of the South African and Australian sides making up ground on the Kiwi teams, New Zealand has somehow still earned four of the eight spots in the finals.
Statistically, Australia and South Africa have performed better against New Zealand team in 2019 – but whether that’s due to an improvement on their behalf is still up for debate. Many of New Zealand’s top players had little to no pre-season preparation and were required to sit out a number of matches, which may have contributed to their lacklustre performances.
The Chiefs, one of the stronger sides in recent years, were hit ridiculously hard by injuries. Sam Cane made his first appearance of the season in round 14 while Brodie Retallick suited up only seven times. Damian McKenzie played his final game of the season in round 9 and Michael Allardice, who took over as captain once Cane and Retallick succumbed to injury, lodged only eight appearances himself.
While the Highlanders snuck into the playoffs by the barest of margins, they also played out two drawn matches during the season (plus the cancelled match against the Crusaders). Wins in those games would have seen the southerners finish in 5th spot and would not have been biting their nails so match watching the final duels of the round robin.
The Crusaders and the Hurricanes, meanwhile, were the top two performing sides in 2019.
While the Highlanders likely have a greater chance at toppling the Crusaders in Christchurch than almost any other team in the competition, it’s hard to go past a victory for the home side. The Crusaders have underperformed in recent weeks and the Highlanders will be galvanised by the return of Ben Smith in what could be his final ever Super Rugby match. Still, expect to see the Crusaders in action again in the semi-finals.
Both the Jaguares and the Chiefs are on form at the moment – but perhaps the Chiefs side’s finals experience could be the deciding factor in their fixture. Only once have the Jaguares lost at home to the season, and with Cane and Retallick back in the saddle, a repeat result could well be on he cards. Whatever the case, it should be a high scoring affair, with the two sides ranked second and third for points scored in 2019.
The Bulls’ reward for crushing the Lions sees them travel to New Zealand’s capital to battle it out with the Hurricanes. The Bulls performed surprisingly well in Australasia this year, notching up a win and two draws. That tour, however, came finished up less than two weeks ago and the Pretorians may still be feeling the heat of travel. This should be the most comprehensive result of the weekend, with the Hurricanes in good form, but don’t be surprised if the Bulls keep in touch for the first hour of the match until the tiredness kicks in.
Saturday night’s game between the Brumbies and the Sharks could be the hardest result to predict. The Brumbies have a good record at home this year, falling only to the fast-starting Rebels. The Sharks, however, have only lost twice on the road. The unlikely victory against the Stormers should give the Sharks plenty of belief heading into the match but Australia’s sole finalists will be instilled as favourites of the basis of home advantage and their more consistent results throughout 2019.
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