By Greg Stutchbury
WELLINGTON (Reuters) – While World Rugby’s hopes of reinvigorating the international game died with the scrapped Nations Championship, the southern hemisphere’s Super Rugby playoffs this weekend has demonstrated that engaging with developing nations can reap rewards.
The proposed Nations Championship was scrapped by the world governing body on Wednesday after it failed to garner unanimous approval from the game’s most powerful nations.
The business end of Super Rugby, however, has thrown up the possibility of a new champion from a new continent with Argentina’s Jaguares hosting the 2012-13 winners the Waikato Chiefs in the quarter-finals in Buenos Aires on Friday.
It will be the first playoff match to be hosted in Argentina and if Gonzalo Quesada’s team beat a resurgent Chiefs side at Estadio Jose Amalfitani, they will also host the winner of the clash between the ACT Brumbies and Sharks in the semi-finals.
“Teams from New Zealand are always very difficult, and (especially) in these type of games,” Jaguares captain Jeronimo de la Fuente told the team’s website.
“For us, it represents a good opportunity to play well and take advantage of what we do at home.
“If we want to keep going, we have to beat anyone who comes in front of us. We are very confident, that’s why we achieved everything so far. We believe in ourselves.”
That confidence will be required if the South Americans are to pick up their first title in what would cap a remarkable rise since entering the competition in 2016.
However, the shadow of the Canterbury Crusaders will loom large over the playoffs.
The nine-times champions face the Otago Highlanders in the first quarter-final on Friday in their home town of Christchurch, where they have never lost a playoff game.
Scott Robertson’s team are also riding an unbeaten 28-match run at Rugby League Park since a loss to the Wellington Hurricanes in July, 2016.
The twice defending champions have also beefed up their pack with front rowers Owen Franks and Codie Taylor returning from injury to reunite with All Blacks colleague Joe Moody for the first time this season.
The Highlanders only scraped into the playoffs after they produced a bonus-point victory over an insipid New South Wales Waratahs last week, but have welcomed back All Blacks fullback Ben Smith from a serious hamstring injury.
The winner of the all-South Island clash will face either the Wellington Hurricanes or South Africa’s Bulls in the semi-finals.
The Hurricanes were the second-best side in the competition this season and actually won the most number of games (12), but with the vagaries of the conference system have been seeded fourth.
That only guaranteed them a home quarter-final on Saturday against the fifth-seeded Bulls, who have been forced to return to Australasia a week after they returned home from a month on the road Down Under.
The Brumbies are Australia’s only representative in the playoffs, marking the fourth successive year the conference has only had one team qualify in the top eight.
The Canberra-based side, however, won their last six games and face a Sharks team on Saturday who won just seven matches all season and needed a late try against the Stormers last week to make the playoffs.
That has not stopped Sharks coach Robert du Preez from believing they could go further.
“There’s no doubt about the team’s character,” du Preez told his team’s website. “There’s no doubt in my mind, not for one minute that this team can progress in the competition.
“It’s a fantastic team and on any given day, we can beat any opposition.”
(Reporting by Greg Stutchbury; Editing by Sudipto Ganguly)