FINAL ROUND THEATRICS
Super Rugby may come in for criticism at times but there could be no doubting the intense interest that carried through to the final game of the regular season this year. Results counted right until the end and set the scene for a fascinating round of playoff games at the weekend. Sitting back in the best position of all were the defending champions, the Crusaders, who had the bye in the last round. However, the key point in the sides reaching the playoffs was the advance made by the Jaguares in achieving a home game. Their progress has highlighted the worth of including the Argentinians in the competition and while there has been criticism of that, there is no escaping the fact it has been a boost for the game in the southern hemisphere and that can only be of benefit in the longer term.
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Apart from the fact that the Highlanders put themselves in a position to qualify for the playoffs with their 49-12 win over the Waratahs, they showed that they can handle conditions traditionally associated with rugby in the southernmost part of the country. While the covered Forsyth Barr Stadium ensures they can play on a high quality, dry ground compared to the bogs that could often develop at Carisbrook, their franchise partner Invercargill offers a reality check with more usual winter conditions. There was no rain or wind at Rugby Park on Friday night but there had been rain earlier which, compounded with evening dew, made for a slippery surface. However, the Highlanders handled it with ease, and that may yet prove helpful as they face the Crusaders on a potentially similar surface in Christchurch on Friday.
One of the casualties this season has been the Lions, who had been a trend-setting side in recent years for the way in which they played the game. While the tradition in South Africa had been for more forward-oriented play, the Lions broke the mould and looked to play a more attacking game with fast backs having more opportunities to put their skills to the test. They qualified for three consecutive finals but had to settle for second place on each occasion. However, they struck injury issues this year and were rarely able to play at the level that had served them so well in the past. But their efforts in playing the attacking game has resulted in other sides grasping the nettle and all South African sides have been developing a more rounded game, and the Lions deserve credit for setting the example.
BULLS AND SHARKS HIT THE ROAD
South African critics are not holding their breath that either of their qualifying sides, the Bulls and Sharks, will advance to the semifinals at the weekend. Both face long haul flights to Australasia – the Bulls to Wellington and the Sharks to Canberra. South African rugby writer Rob Houwing said of the two sides the Bulls looked to have the better chance on paper but a key factor was how recently they had returned from New Zealand – a week ago. "Going back the other way again will wreak havoc with body clocks, particularly for someone like flyhalf and key playmaker Handre Pollard, who interrupted that four-match tour for an injury-enforced return home and then flew hastily back for the closing fixture against the Highlanders." An interesting factor in their quarterfinal with the Hurricanes is that due to an anomaly in the draw, the two sides have not played each other this year.
Individual performances in the competition should become much clearer in the last three weeks of the competition. In the try-scoring stakes Crusader Sevu Reece leads with 13 tries while still live in the race to challenge him are Ngani Laumape (Hurricanes) and Folau Fainga'a (Brumbies) who have both scored 11 tries. Crusader Braydon Ennor is on 10 tries. On the individual points scoring list it appears unlikely Bulls first five-eighths Handre Pollard will be headed. He is on 188 points going into the Hurricanes game on Saturday and has the chance to post 200 points. Next highest of those teams still live is Crusader Richie Mo'unga on 125 points with Highlander Josh Ioane on 110 and Hurricane Beauden Barrett on 103.
QUARTERFINALS | Breathtaking final round! Against all odds, the @Highlanders and @ChiefsRugby have snuck into the playoffs! Who are you backing to make the semifinals? ??#RaiseTheStakes pic.twitter.com/CcaTA5Filt— Super Rugby (@SuperRugbyNZ) June 16, 2019