Eleven Busch Lights on a Tuesday edition.
Ratings for the games:
Highlanders Waratahs: 4/10
Rebels Chiefs: 4/10
Jaguares Sunwolves: 3/10
Hurricanes Blues: 5/10
Brumbies Reds: 5/10
Stormers Sharks: 7.5/10
Bulls Lions: 5/10
To preface this section, all year there has been talk of the 2019 edition of the competition being more equal, more competitive. Terms like “league of parity” were bandied about (including in this very column). There was a legitimate prospect of having only two New Zealand teams in the finals, the lowest representation of any conference. Wrong! The Kiwis are fully half of the playoff field, with only the Brumbies representing Australia. “New year, new me” said the Australian conference, like any hungover 29 year old after having spent New Year’s drinking with people six years junior. Here we are, six months later, and the non-Brumbies Oz teams are doing the Super Rugby equivalent of setting into their eleventh Busch Light on a Tuesday thinking “next year, I’ll get it right next year”.
Highlanders 49 – Waratahs 12: It’s hard to rate blowouts like this highly as the competitive nature of the game disappears so fast. Both sides needed the win and a bonus point and help to make the finals. Through some player management decisions, the Tahs left many of their best players at home in New South Wales to rest for their Wallabies duties in a must win game. Despite being without Ben Smith, the Landers never let the Tahs up for air and quickly ran out a bonus point win. Their reward? An away match to Christchurch to play the Crusaders. Daryl Gibson and his side will watch in comfort from their couches.
Rebels 8 – Chiefs 59: Both sides needed a win, and the Chiefs needed the bonus point if they were to avoid needing help. Unlike the Tahs, the Rebels had their full contingent including Quade Cooper and Will Genia reunited in the halves. Cooper certainly put on a show, being directly involved in no fewer than five tries All to the Chiefs. Shaun Stevenson bagged a hat trick. Solomon Alaimalo put on a clinic. The lone moment of light for the home team was a Matt Philip try that started as an ill advised Rebels kick itself, and Isi Naisarani showed heart for the Melbourne side. Brad Weber continued his brilliant form, fending Cooper from a scrum to pass back inside for a try. Chiefs tighthead Angus Ta’avao outpaced many Rebels to assist a try on a line break. The Chiefs book a flight to Buenos Aires to play the Jaguares. The Rebels have conceded 145 points over the past three games and can now text their buddies from the Waratahs about the quarterfinals as they watch from their own couches.
Jaguares 52 – Sunwolves 10: Another blowout, this one sans playoff implications. Jaguares dominant in all fronts except for the “kicking to Semisi Masirewa” front, which somehow still happens. In any case, not remotely competitive and a decent tune-up for the Jags who will play the visiting Chiefs next Friday.
Hurricanes 29 – Blues 24: There is not much more depressing than being a Blues fan. In this case, the Aucklanders led at halftime (continuing a trend of the Canes playing inconsistent first and second halves) against an undermanned Hurricanes squad. True to form, the Blues coughed it up and gave away the win to the second ranked Hurricanes with a miserable second half. No playoff implications, but emblematic of a Blues squad showing promise early and revealing their true identity later on.
Brumbies 40 – Reds 27: Another no playoff implication game, this one went exactly as expected. The Brumbies are playing the only good rugby in the Australian conference and are rewarded with a home quarterfinal against the Sharks. For the Reds, their season can be summarized by Samu Kerevi watching helplessly on the outside with an overlap as Duncan Paia’aua carries into three defenders and turns the ball over. At least for his sake, and the anguish of Reds fans everywhere, he leaves for the greener pastures of Japan’s Top League.
Stormers 9 – Sharks 12: Easily the match of the round. Playoff implications, competitive to the end, full of passion and effort from the players. In archetypal South African fashion, this match was a big hitting arm wrestle. Normally I prefer a more expansive, open game but it was great to watch these evenly matched teams square off. Lukhanyo Am’s 81st minute try to regain the lead for the Sharks was the fruition of a full game battle of attrition. Watching the score, you can see that the Stormers are completely spent by the end. Unfortunately for them, all that effort in a loss sees them sent home for the year while the Sharks travel to play the Brumbies. Both sides had large contributions from their midfielders as Am and Damian de Allende both stood out.
Taking a moment to discuss selections, the Stormers-Sharks game showcased some interesting Springbok matchups. Both packs have contributions to the squad, but I will focus on the backs. DDA and Am would both look at home in the centers, with Jesse Kriel, Warrick Gelant and Andre Esterhuizen also competing for those roles. On the wings, however, a different story emerges. None of the four suiting up in this match seemed to be at an international standard. With pace and some moves, they can go fine at Super level but repeatedly were punished on defense and turned the ball over carrying high into contact (including against the aforementioned centers). Willie le Roux seems locked in at fullback and Aphiwe Dyantyi could find work on any international side. But the other wing and the space behind him appears to be full of air. Chelsin Kolbe’s footwork and pace outstrip the other contenders, but he too suffers from a diminutive stature.
Bulls 48 – Lions 27: Despite an opening kickoff return for a try, the Lions never looked the part and were trampled by the Bulls. Handre Pollard comfortably won the battle of the Springbok first fives, and the Bulls’ pack gave him a steady platform to unlock the defense. The Lions’s inability to keep it even close cost them a finals spot and saw the Highlanders through to the post season. The Bulls, with Jesse Kriel returned from injury, will travel to face the Hurricanes in Wellington.
The Final Whistle:
It is not clear how to feel about the Chiefs Jaguares draw. On one hand, they are the clear danger teams headed into the quarters with both in blistering form. On the other, would we be better served to see these teams split up and the excitement spread over more matches? As things are, this match stands to be an absolute barn burner.