After two bone-breaking New Zealand derbies high in both skill and execution, the likely match-ups for the quarter-finals point to the likelihood that the four teams will again duke it out in the semi-finals of the Super 18.
However, we have to ask, have the South African sides been underestimated?
1. The Highlanders (Last week 6; round 17: 25-15 vs The Chiefs)
The defending champions were more physical and tactically sharper than the Chiefs, scoring their sixth straight win against the Mooloo team. The Landers have world class players like Ben and Aaron Smith, Lima Sopoaga, Waisake Naholo and Elliot Dixon in key strategic areas and a squad with experience, speed and depth. They will face the one-dimensional Brumbies away in Canberra – which should present few difficulties. The one complicating factor: the likely return from injury of superstar flanker and one-man breakdown terminator David Pocock.
2. The Hurricanes (Last week 4; round 17: 35-10 vs The Crusaders)
A lot of Canes fans would expect to see their team at the top of any rankings list following their eye-opening win over the Crusaders in Christchurch. They bullied the Saders at the tackle and breakdown, and were more alert to opportunity, as exemplified in the charge down and intercept tries for TJ Perenara and Beauden Barrett respectively. Sitting pretty atop the New Zealand conference, they now face the Sharks at home, and can retain home advantage all the way to the final if they keep winning and the other Kiwi teams dispose of their opposition. There is still a lingering doubt though – will the winning bubble burst again? The consistency of playmaker Barrett will be integral in week(s) ahead.
3. The Chiefs (Last week 2; round 17: 15-25 vs The Highlanders)
The Chiefs seemed to lose their electric connectivity against their bogey team, the Highlanders. After an enterprising beginning, influential players like Aaron Cruden and Damian McKenzie went missing and they were forced into a pattern of desperate defense and frantic counterattack. More poise will be required to beat the Stormers away but their skills should be too much for the Cape Town team.
4. The Lions (Last week 3; round 17: 22-34 vs the Jaguares)
The Lions rolled the dice by resting their entire first team against the Jaguares, causing chaos amongst Fantasy Rugby teams and lost their home advantage position for the final. The selection gamble will either prove a masterstroke or a massive mistake (my money’s on the latter), as they eye another meeting with the Crusaders at home. The Lions’ winning record is impressive this year except against New Zealand teams, with just two wins recorded – against the Chiefs and then the Blues.
5. The Crusaders (Last week 1; round 17: 10-35 vs the Hurricanes)
The Crusaders suffered a big shock at their home ground and perhaps there was some complacency after their huge win against the Rebels in the previous game. Losing veteran halfback Andy Ellis just before kick off seemed to have a big effect on their tactical kicking game and left players like Kieran Read swimming very much against a yellow tide. Ellis and giant wing Nemani Nadolo have both been ruled out through injury for the quarter-final. Their clash against the Lions away will be a humdinger with both teams employing a similar playing style. The two teams met in round play and produced a 10-try classic won by the visiting Crusaders 43 – 37. The Crusaders do travel very well, but will their energy and confidence stocks be depleted after last weekend’s loss and a long flight to Johannesburg?
6. The Sharks (Last week 7; round 17: 40-29 vs the Sun Wolves)
Are the Sharks the dark horses of the competition? They have been tamed by the Lions this year, but have also racked up wins away against the Highlanders and at home against the Hurricanes – the team they will face again this week. The difference is that they will be playing away but they have already shown in their impressive New Zealand tour in round play that the Kiwi sides do not intimidate them – a strong start and there may be Hurricanes blood in the water.
7. The Stormers (Last week 5; round 17: 52-24 vs the Kings)
An easy win over the hapless Kings probably didn’t do Schalk Burger and his Stormers any favours in the lead up to their match against the Chiefs at home this week. Due to the vagaries of the Super 18 schedule, the Stormers will meet their first New Zealand side this year. Expect them to get a wee lesson in speed, skills and execution from a Chiefs side aiming to banish the hurt of their loss against the Highlanders. The Stormers’ only chance is to try to tie the ball up in their powerful forward pack and grind the Chiefs down to submission.
8. The Brumbies (Last week 8; round 17: 24-10 vs the Force)
As expected, the Brumbies ground out an uninspiring win against cellar dwellers the Force to earn a richly-undeserved home game against the Highlanders. The Highlanders are working into some very ominous form and have not lost to any Australian side this year. It could well be curtains in Canberra for the Aussie side’s involvement in this year’s Super 18.
Kaal Kaczmarek, Pundit Arena
Read More About: Aaron Cruden (Chiefs), beauden barrett, Brumbies Rugby, chiefs rugby, Crusaders Rugby, Damian McKenzie (Chiefs), david pocock, hurricanes, Hurricanes Rugby, lions super rugby, schalk burger, sharks super rugby, stormers