The Chiefs fought off a fast-finishing Brumbies side 24-19 to end their season, while the Hurricanes blew away the Blues 42-24 at the Caketin. The Crusaders win on Friday night in their Southern derby against the Highlanders sealed their fate as Super Rugby’s number one seed for the playoffs.
This unfairly means the second and third best teams in the competition, the Hurricanes and Chiefs, will be forced to face off in a quarterfinal death match while the other two weaker conference winners enjoy the spoils of home ground advantage. What’s more, both these teams play in the final round next weekend providing back-to-back clashes of two of Super Rugby’s best teams – but it’s not as appealing as it sounds.
The Hurricanes lead the Chiefs by five competition points, which makes their equation a lot easier. Just secure a bonus point and be assured of home ground advantage in the rematch. The Chiefs, on the other hand, have to win and win big to stay in Hamilton another week – not only do they need the bonus point, they need to erase a points differential of 44 to jump them on the ladder.
The Highlanders in sixth position, for what it’s worth, face an even bigger mountain to climb if they want to leapfrog the Chiefs in fifth spot (a bonus point win by 105 points against the Rebels).
So what could’ve been a high stakes Chiefs-Hurricanes clash next weekend now looks more like a redundant exercise for both teams who look safe to finish the season where they sit now. Unless the Chiefs back themselves to beat the Hurricanes by 44 points, both sides have an incentive to rest key players as the standings can’t be altered.
Losing Damian McKenzie or Beauden Barrett in a meaningless game would then hand the other an advantage for the finals rematch. Securing a crucial bonus point win last night against the Blues was critical for the Hurricanes in making this a bridge too far for the Chiefs, who failed to get a bonus point from their fixture.
This ultimately means we will miss out on McKenzie against Barrett in back-t0-back high stakes clashes. This could’ve been career altering for the two. McKenzie’s third test start against France put Barrett on notice that the All Blacks can fire with another 10 at the helm. In fact, they probably looked better than any stage of the series when Barrett was pulling the strings without McKenzie on the field.
The chance to battle twice in a row with home ground advantage on the line and then for everything in a do-or-die finals clash would’ve been the perfect way to challenge Barrett’s throne. In the same way Barrett’s form two years ago spelled the end of Aaron Cruden’s short reign, McKenzie could add more pressure to his case. On the flip side, handing the Chiefs another playoff exit after punishing them in their backyard could’ve been the exclamation mark for Barrett to see off McKenzie.
We will still get this matchup in two weeks time, but it will only be half as good as the prequel will be a trial match – Barrett likely won’t even play. The Hurricanes will get home ground advantage and play the contest that matters at Westpac Stadium where they are 8-0 this season, firmly stacking the odds in Barrett’s favour.
And the Hurricanes wouldn’t be in this cushy position if it wasn’t for Barrett’s miraculous intercept – that try sealed the bonus point which makes it near impossible for the Chiefs to jump them.
Barrett catching that tipped ball may be more important than he knows.
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