It’s do or die as the elite eight battle it out in the Super Rugby Pacific quarter-finals this weekend, writes Quintin van Jaarsveld.
Pacesetting New Zealand teams, resurgent Australian outfits and history-makers from Fiji take to the turf looking to book their places in the final four.
The knockouts kick off in Auckland, where the Blues welcome the Waratahs to the iconic Eden Park on Friday ahead of Saturday’s triple header.
The Chiefs host the Reds in Hamilton, the Crusaders face Fijian Drua in Christchurch and the Brumbies battle the Hurricanes in Canberra.
Blues v Waratahs
Friday, 9 June – 9:35
The Blues held off the Highlanders 16-9 last weekend to ensure they qualify in third position. It was nothing flashy and, thus, ideal preparation for the knockouts as they showed they have what it takes to grind out victories in tight tussles.
That said, this won’t be an arm-wrestle. The Waratahs are limping into the Eden Park encounter having suffered a shock 33-24 loss at home to wooden spoonists Moana Pasifika last weekend and have a number of injury concerns.
Given how they were physically dominated, they won’t have the muscle to stand up to the Blues, who’ll hammer away and ultimately win rather comfortably.
Chiefs v Reds
Saturday, 10 June – 6:35
Imperious with just a single defeat all season (more on that later), the Chiefs have long looked championship bound and having finished top of the log by a full 11 points over the second-placed Crusaders, they have an opportunity to make an example out of the Reds.
It’s a rather sad indictment of the depth, or lack thereof, of the competition that the Reds are in the quarter-finals despite winning just five of their 14 fixtures. One of those wins, however, was over the Chiefs – a 25-22 upset in New Plymouth last month that ended a 10-year losing streak on New Zealand soil.
The visitors will be brimming with belief, as a result, and with nothing to lose, they won’t hesitate to take chances. The Chiefs, however, would’ve learned their lesson. There won’t be any complacency this time around as they exact revenge and move on to bigger and better things with a complete performance.
Crusaders v Fijian Drua
Saturday, 10 June – 9:05
It’s been one of the more challenging seasons for the perennial champion Crusaders. They’ve had to settle for second place at the conclusion of the regular season, lost 27-26 to the Hurricanes last weekend and were stunned 25-24 by Fijian Drua in their previous meeting.
Drua, meanwhile, have had a fairy-tale season and are on an absolute high after qualifying for the quarter-finals for the first time. They’re coming off their finest performance of the season, a 41-17 rout of the Reds to make it two wins in a row, so there’s a sense that they could shock the world on Saturday.
The Crusaders, however, are renowned for shifting into a higher gear in knockout rugby and will end Drua’s dream run emphatically.
Brumbies v Hurricanes
Saturday, 10 June – 11:35
We finish off with the toughest tie to pick. The Brumbies have been the best Australian side by a country mile, winning 10 of their 14 games to qualify in fourth place on 46. The next-best Waratahs, by comparison, claimed just six wins and 31 log points.
The men from Canberra, therefore, carry the hope of a nation on their shoulders and are coming off a 33-17 win over the Melbourne Rebels. The Hurricanes, thanks to their above-mentioned nail-biting win over the Crusaders last weekend, qualified in fifth place with a record of 9-5.
Neither side has had a good run-in to the quarters with the hosts having won three of their last five and the visitors just two. The Canes won the last meeting between the teams 32-27, although, that was in their backyard.
It should be a thrilling, open contest between the two top try-scoring teams this season (the Wellington side have scored a tournament-leading 70 tries, four more than the Brumbies). Set-piece-wise, the Brumbies should have the edge in the lineout whereas the Canes have the stronger scrum.
Defensively, they are very evenly matched, so it’ll come down to hunger, focus and discipline. Home-ground advantage will be key and in a game that could go either way, the value lies in the underdog Brumbies.