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Super Rugby sudden-death arrives

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Super Rugby sudden-death arrives: could we see an upset in Christchurch or Buenos Aires?

Truth be told, it hasn’t been a great season of Super Rugby.

It’s been mighty competitive – that can’t be denied. In the final round of the regular season only two teams had been mathematically eliminated.  Realistically, 12 of the 15 competitors were still in with a shot of making the quarter-finals (and the teams ranked 9th through 11th going into the final round all earned spots in the knockouts).

A competitive season doesn’t necessarily make for a good season, however. Teams were inconsistent – performing one week then failing to show up the next.

The skills on display were also, at times, sub-par.

The biggest issue, however, was that international representatives were regularly rested from games to keep players fresh for the upcoming World Cup.

The above all contributed to an average season to date – which is why it’s so exciting to finally be in the sudden death portion of the competition.

The Crusaders, Hurricanes, Jaguares, Brumbies, Bulls and Chiefs have all found some consistency in the latter half of the season which makes them worthy quarter-finalists. All six have a realistic shot at taking out the title – though the non-Kiwi teams will be desperately hoping that the Crusaders can be knocked over at home by one of their fellow New Zealand sides.

The Highlanders and Sharks, who have both had more losses than wins, have also somehow found themselves competing for the top prize – and you know that at least the Highlanders will put up a good fight against their southern rivals.

The quarter-finals kick off this evening with the Crusaders hosting the Highlanders and will conclude tomorrow night when the Sharks travel to Canberra to try upstage the Brumbies.

Quarter-Final 1: Crusaders v Highlanders

In the Crusaders’ favour:

Home advantage – the last time the Crusaders lost at home was in 2016, against the eventual champions, the Hurricanes. Since then, they’ve gone 28 matches without tasting defeat. Consider that the Crusaders have never lost a home knockout match and you can see why Cantabrians might be feeling confident about this one.

Overall performance – there’s no doubt about it: the Crusaders have been Super Rugby’s top dogs in 2019. The Crusaders have lost just twice this season and both of those games were away from home. Although the Crusaders’ recent form hasn’t been incredible, they’ve still recorded more wins than the Highlanders have in the latter half of the season.

Squad depth – in recent times, the Highlanders have been able to field a starting side as good as if not better than most other teams in the competition. Their major weakness, however, has been that the backups aren’t quite up to scratch. Perhaps that weakness is not quite so prominent in 2019, but the Crusaders clearly have the best depth of any team in this competition. Expect to see the Crusaders assert themselves in the final quarter of the match as their super subs run onto the pitch.

In the Highlanders’ favour:

Bender’s last match – the Highlanders will be pumped at the thought of giving one of their talismans a proper send-off. Ben Smith’s hamstring injury was expected to end his Super Rugby season but by making it to the play-offs, the Highlanders now have a chance to say good-bye on a high note. Smith’s 150th game was spoiled by the Crusaders – the Higlanders will be doing everything they can to ensure his last game isn’t too.

Recent Results:

2019: CRU 43 – 17 HIG (Christchurch)
2018: CRU 45 – 22 HIG (Christchurch)
2018: HIG 25 – 17 CRU (Dunedin)
2017: CRU 17 – 0 HIG (Christchurch)
2017: CRU 25 – 22 HIG (Christchurch)

Squads:

Crusaders: David Havili, Sevu Reece, Jack Goodhue, Ryan Crotty, George Bridge, Richie Mo’unga, Bryn Hall, Kieran Read, Matt Todd, Whetukamokamo Douglas, Samuel Whitelock (c), Scott Barrett, Owen Franks, Codie Taylor, Joe Moody. Reserves: Andrew Makalio, Tim Perry, Michael Alalatoa, Luke Romano, Jordan Taufua, Mitchell Drummond, Mitchell Hunt, Braydon Ennor.

Highlanders: Ben Smith (cc), Waisake Naholo, Rob Thompson, Tei Walden, Sio Tompkinson, Josh Ioane, Aaron Smith, Luke Whitelock, James Lentjes, Liam Squire, Tom Franklin, Jackson Hemopo, Tyrel Lomax, Liam Coltman, Daniel Lienert-Brown. Reserves: Ash Dixon, Ayden Johnstone, Siate Tokolahi, Josh Dickson, Shannon Frizzell, Kayne Hammington, Marty Banks, Elliot Dixon.

Quarter-Final 2: Jaguares v Chiefs

In the Jaguares’ favour:

Everyone’s second favourite team – unless your name is Phil Kearns, every neutral around the world will be supporting the Jaguares in their first ever home finals match. The Jaguares have continued to play a brand of rugby that enamours the public, and this belief will help galvanise the South Americans.

Mr Consistents – the Jaguares have built into the season nicely and are peaking at the right time, but they are also one of the few teams that never really under-performed during the season. They lost three matches in a row early on in the year, but only once have they lost by more than eight points. Since that run of defeats, the Jaguares were only bested once more – away from home against the Highlanders, where their top players to freshen them up.

Argentinian crowd – the crowds in Buenos Aires this year may not have always been much bigger than in other cities, but they’ve certainly been amongst some of the loudest that Super Rugby has seen. Expect a sell-out for this match-up: both teams know how to put on a show. The passionate Jaguares supporters will not doubt give their home team a huge boost.

In the Chiefs’ favour:

Undefeated in BA – they may only have played in Argentina twice, but they’ve won both of those matches. In both games the Chiefs needed a late score to secure the victory, but the Jaguares will have a small weight on their backs knowing that they’re yet to turn the Chiefs over in Buenos Aires. It’s not hugely surprising that the Chiefs perform well there, given the hard turf which promotes running rugby – something the Chiefs excel at.

Late season run – it’s been well documented how poorly the Chiefs performed in their early stages of 2019. The latter half of the year, however, has seen the Chiefs find a relatively rich vein of form – no doubt helped by the return of captain Sam Cane. The victory over the Crusaders only three weeks ago should be enough to make any of the Chiefs’ upcoming opposition take note, especially when you consider that the Waikato side has lost only three of their previous 11 matches.

Ex-Chief in charge – perhaps this will actually end up being a disadvantage for the Hamiltonians, but for some reason the powers-that-be decided it was a wise idea to make ex-Chief Glen Jackson the referee for this winner-takes-all clash. The Chiefs haven’t performed any better with Jackson in the middle of the field, but given the controversy that emerged earlier this year with the South African sides receiving some distinct advantages when refereed by South African umpires, it seems like a silly decision regardless.

Recent results:

2019: CHI 30 – 27 JAG (Buenos Aires)
2018: JAG 23 – 19 CHI (Rotorua)
2017: CHI 30 – 26 JAG (Buenos Aires)

Squads:

Jaguares: Emiliano Boffelli, Sabastian Cancelliere, Matias Orlando, Jeronimo de la Fuente (c), Matias Moroni, Joaquin Diaz Bonilla, Tomas Cubelli, Javier Ortega Desio, Marcos Kremer, Pablo Matera, Tomas Lavanini, Guido Petti, Santiago Medrano, Agustin Creevy, Mayco Vivas. Reserves: Julian Montoya, Nahuel Tetaz Chaparro, Enrique Pieretto, Tomas Lezana, Francisco Gorrissen, Felipe Ezcurra, Domingo Miotti, Santiago Carreras.

Chiefs: Solomon Alaimalo, Shaun Stevenson, Tumua Manu, Anton Lienert-Brown, Sean Wainui, Jack Debrezceni, Brad Weber, Pita Gus Sowakula, Sam Cane (c), Lachlan Boshier, Tyler Ardron, Brodie Retallick, Angus Ta’avao, Nathan Harris, Atu Moli. Reserves: Alex Nankivell, Marty McKenzie, Te Toiroa Tahuriorangi, Mitchell Jacobson, Jesse Parete, Nepo Laulala, Aidan Ross, Samisoni Taukei’aho.

Quarter-Final 3: Hurricanes v Bulls

In the Hurricanes’ favour:

Most winning-est team – the Crusaders may be top of the log, but the Hurricanes actually recorded the most victories of any Super Rugby side this year. The Hurricanes know how to win – by both small and big margins. The Crusaders’ success has meant that the team from New Zealand’s capital has somewhat flown under the radar this year, but consider that they’ve only lost to the Crusaders and the Jaguares in 2019 – both teams ranked ahead of them on the table.

Home strength – the Hurricanes have only lost one playoff fixture in Wellington, and that was in the 2015 final against the Highlanders. That’s a pretty strong record, given that they’ve hosted seven finals matches in the past. The last time the Bulls beat the Hurricanes in Wellington was a decade ago.

Potent backline – is there a more dangerous back three in Super Rugby than that of the Hurricanes? Jordie Barrett, Ben Lam and Wes Goosen will line up on Saturday night, and they bring the perfect balance of skills, strength and speed. Add in the like of Ngani Laumape, Beauden Barrett and TJ Perenara, and the Bulls will have their hands full this weekend.

In the Bulls’ favour:

Recent NZ success – the Bulls recently completed a four-match tour to Australasia which saw them muster two draws against New Zealand teams. Obviously draws won’t be good enough in the finals, but the Bulls travelled considerably better in 2019 than they have in the past. The fact that they toured so recently may render them more tired than their opposition, but at least they’ll be used to the country’s current climate.

Pollard pulling the strings – Handre Pollard, in his final season with the Bulls, has remained relatively injury free this year. He left the NZ tour early but made a startling recovery to return for the final match. Barrett may be the better overall player than Pollard, but the Bulls first five is arguably better at getting his fellow backs up and running.

Recent results:

2018: BUL 21 – 19 HUR (Pretoria)
2017: HUR 34 – 20 BUL (Pretoria)
2015: HUR 17 – 13 BUL (Pretoria)
2014: HUR 25 – 20 BUL (Wellington)

Squads:

Hurricanes: Jordie Barrett, Wes Goosen, Peter Umaga-Jensen, Ngani Laumape, Ben Lam, Beauden Barrett, TJ Perenara, Gareth Evans, Ardie Savea, Reed Prinsep, Isaia Walker-Leawere, James Blackwell, Jeff To’omaga Allen, Dane Coles (c), Toby Smith. Reserves: Asafo Aumua, Fraser Armstrong, Ben May/Alex Fidow, Kane Le’aupepe, Du’Plessis Kirifi, Richard Judd/Finlay Christie, James Marshall, Salesi Rayasi.

Bulls: Warrick Gelant, Cornal Hendricks, Jesse Kriel, Johnny Kotze, Rosko Specman, Handre Pollard (c), Andre Warner, Duane Vermeulen, Hanro Liebenberg, Marco van Staden, RG Snyman, Jason Jenkins, Trevor Nyakane, Jaco Visagie, Lizo Gqoboka. Reserves: Johan Grobbelaar, Simphiwe Matanzima, Wiehahn Herbst, Jannes Kirsten, Ruan Steenkamp, Ivan van Zyl, Manie Libbok, Divan Rossouw.

Quarter-Final 4: Brumbies v Sharks

In the Brumbies’ favour:

Canberra fortress – only once this season have the Brumbies been bested in Canberra, and that was in the first-round clash with the Rebels. Since then, the Brumbies have disposed the likes of the Chiefs, the Lions and the Bulls in Australia’s capital. The initial loss aside, the team to actually get closest to toppling the Brumbies in Canberra was the Blues. The Brumbies have also never lost a play-off fixture at home to a team from outside of New Zealand.

Sharks revert to guppies during sudden death – the Sharks have appeared in 15 knockout games and come out second best in 10 of those fixtures. The last time they won a sudden death match was five years ago, against the Highlanders in Durban. In 2012 the Sharks won two finals matches on the road then fell at the final hurdle to the Chiefs in Hamilton. Those two victories are the only away wins that the Durbanites have managed during knockout footy.

In the Sharks’ favour:

Strong travellers – whilst the Sharks have performed poorly at home in 2019, securing only three wins from eight, their form on the road has been exceptional compared to the rest of the competition’s, falling to the just the Chiefs, Jaguares and Bulls.

Forged with fire – the Sharks have had a pretty challenging year, all things considered. They had to travel to Christchurch and Hamilton to take on the Crusaders and the Chiefs – where they managed a draw and 6-point loss. They also had to duke it out in the South African conference, which is considerably tougher than the Brumbies’ own Australian conference.

Recent results:

2018: BRU 24 – 17 SHA (Canberra)
2017: SHA 27 – 22 BRU (Canberra)
2014: BRU 16 – 9 SHA (Canberra)
2013: BRU 29 – 10 SHA (Durban)

Squads:

Brumbies: Tom Banks, Henry Speight, Tevita Kuridrani, Irae Simone, Toni Pulu, Christian Lealiifano (c), Joe Powell, Pete Samu, Tom Cusack, Rob Valetini, Sam Carter, Rory Arnold, Scott Sio, Folau Faingaa, Allan Alaalatoa. Reserves: Connal McInnerney, James Slipper, Les Makin, Darcy Swain, Lachy McCaffrey, Jahrome Brown, Matt Lucas, Tom Wright

Sharks: Curwin Bosch, Sbu Nkosi, Lukhanyo Am, Andre Esterhuizen, Makazole Mapimpi, Robert du Preez, Louis Schreuder (c), Daniel du Preez, Tyler Paul, Jacques Vermuelen, Hyron Andrews, Ruben van Heerden, Coenie Oosthuizen, Kerron van Vuuren, Mzamo Majola. Reserves: Cullen Collopy, Juan Schoeman, Thomas du Toit, Gideon Koegelenberg, Luke Stringer, Cameron Wright, Jeremy Ward, Rhyno Smith

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Super Rugby sudden-death arrives: could we see an upset in Christchurch or Buenos Aires?