By Ian Ransom
MELBOURNE (Reuters) – A Super Rugby season that once promised change has reverted to type at the business end with the Canterbury Crusaders in the box seat for the title, and South Africa and Australia left to fight for the scraps from New Zealand’s playoffs table.
The first of four New Zealand teams to qualify for the postseason, Scott Robertson’s Crusaders will face the Otago Highlanders in the first of the quarter-finals on Friday and few would bet against the double-defending champions.
The Crusaders have never lost a home playoff in the 23-year history of the competition and are riding an unbeaten 28-match run at Rugby League Park since a loss to the Wellington Hurricanes in July, 2016.
Moreover, having finished top of the standings, the nine-times champions have guaranteed home playoffs for as long as they survive.
If all that wasn’t enough, they will also head into the South Island derby fresh from a bye, with their last result a 66-0 humiliation of the eliminated Melbourne Rebels.
The Crusaders have done away with the pre-game parades of horsemen and swords but the medieval feeling lingers for visiting teams, who are invariably ripped apart in front of appreciative crowds.
The prospect of a trip to Christchurch draws out the usual coaches’ platitudes about streaks being “meant to be broken”, and Highlanders boss Aaron Mauger made a fist of talking tough after his team thrashed the New South Wales Waratahs on Friday.
“We can go through and beat anybody,” said Mauger, who has guided the 2015 champions to six wins this season, their worst campaign since 2013.
The winner will play either the Wellington Hurricanes or the Bulls, runners up in the New Zealand and South Africa conferences respectively.
The Hurricanes won hosting rights as the best performing side outside of the three conference winners and will be hard to beat in the New Zealand capital.
They will also be fresh after coach John Plumtree rested talismanic flyhalf Beauden Barrett and a clutch of first-choice players for the final round and yet were still strong enough to overhaul the Auckland Blues 29-24.
While Super Rugby has worn plenty of flak for bungled expansions, few can argue with the inclusion of Argentina’s Jaguares, who have booked their second successive playoff campaign after easily winning the South African conference.
Effectively the Argentina team in different shirts, the Jaguares won the right to host a quarter-final in Buenos Aires but face an intriguing matchup with New Zealand’s resurgent Waikato Chiefs.
The Chiefs claimed a last-gasp 30-27 win at the same venue in March, leaving Jaguares captain “bitterly disappointed” after his team’s third successive loss.
It was to prove a turning point as the Gonzalo Quesada-coached side won nine of their final 10 matches, included five out of six on long-haul tours to South Africa and Australasia.
While the Chiefs snuck into the playoffs with only seven wins, they may well prove a handful.
They scalped the Crusaders in Fiji in a run of four wins from their last five games.
Inspirational lock and co-captain Brodie Retallick has also made a timely return from a long injury layoff, and emerged unscathed in the 59-8 demolition of the Rebels on Friday.
The winner of the Jaguares-Chiefs game will play either the ACT Brumbies or the Durban-based Sharks who clash in Canberra on Saturday.
As the Australian conference winners, the ACT Brumbies are the country’s sole remaining hope after the Waratahs and Rebels bowed out with humiliating final round defeats.
They head into the quarter-final on the back of six successive wins and face an enigmatic Sharks side with only seven victories for the season.
The muscular Brumbies should have too many weapons for a Sharks side that needed a late try away to the Stormers to scrape in on Saturday.
But with Australian rugby desperate for a good news story ahead of the World Cup, the Brumbies will carry a heavy burden at Canberra Stadium.
(Reporting by Ian Ransom; Editing by Nick Mulvenney)