The 2016 Super Rugby competition has endured a torrent of criticism all season from fans and pundits alike over its complicated format, with New Zealand’s heavyweight teams, in particular, significantly disadvantaged.
The top four spots – and home advantage in week one of the finals – are reserved for the top qualifier in each of the New Zealand and Australian Conferences, and the two Africa Conferences, which also included the Jaguares and Sunwolves.
The Hurricanes came from the clouds to take out the NZ Conference and finish atop the Super Rugby ladder with a stunning bonus-point victory over the Crusaders in the final round, with the Highlanders’ defeat of the Chiefs and the Jaguares’ win over the Lions assisting the ’Canes to a second straight minor premiership.
The Highlanders, Chiefs and Crusaders finished with the same 11-4 win-loss record as the Hurricanes (who chalked up more bonus points), as did the second-placed Lions, South Africa’s leading franchise.
But the convoluted make-up of the top-eight picture means the Stormers and Brumbies clinched top-four berths with inferior records.
It’s difficult to deny the quartet of Kiwi giants are comfortably the best four teams in the competition, crafting outstanding records despite playing a higher proportion of their games against each other.
In fact, the Crusaders were undefeated against overseas teams, while the Hurricanes, Highlanders and Chiefs won all but two of their games against non-New Zealand sides.
For all the format’s inherent unfairness, however, the results in a dramatic and enthralling final round fell in a way that is set to put the four powerhouses on a semi-final collision course.
They’ve managed to avoid each other in next weekend’s qualifiers, where they all start as favourites – or near enough to it – against offshore rivals.
The Lions’ gamble of resting 15 top-line players backfired, going down 34-22 to the Jaguares to surrender the competition lead they took into the final round. That result in the last match of the regular season saw the Crusaders avoid an unenviable trip to Wellington to take on the in-form Hurricanes.
— Super Rugby (@super_rugby) July 17, 2016
Here’s how the first week of the finals stack up:
Friday, 6.05pm (AEST) – Brumbies v Highlanders @ GIO Stadium, Canberra
Saturday, 5.35pm (AEST) – Hurricanes v Sharks @ Westpac Stadium, Wellington
Sunday, 12.30am (AEST) – Lions v Crusaders @ Ellis Park, Johannesburg
Sunday, 3.00am (AEST) – Stormers v Chiefs @ Newlands, Cape Town
The defending champion Highlanders are warm favourites to account for the Brumbies on the road, with the woeful Australian Conference’s top team struggling since the international break. Missing injured No.7 David Pocock, the Brumbies were pumped 40-15 by the Blues in Round 16 before scratching their way to a 24-10 win over the lowly Force to edge out the Waratahs for the conference title.
— Stuff.co.nz News (@NZStuff) July 17, 2016
The Hurricanes should make short work of the Sharks at home, while the Crusaders will start as narrow outsiders against the Lions in South Africa. But this will be the Lions’ first finals match since 2001, and the Crusaders inflicted a rare Ellis Park defeat on them earlier this season.
The star-studded Chiefs face a tough assignment in Cape Town against the Stormers, but it would surprise to see them fail.
If the Kiwi outfits emerge victorious in the four qualifiers, it will set up a replay of Saturday’s sensational double-header.
The Hurricanes would host the Crusaders, looking to replicate their 35-10 drubbing of the red-and-blacks in Christchurch, while the Chiefs would be returning from the Republic to another daunting assignment under the roof in Dunedin against the Highlanders, who prevailed 25-15 at Forsyth Barr Stadium last night.
The Chiefs, who would be lamenting their Round 17 loss after heading into the weekend as the top-ranked NZ team, have lost their last six against the Highlanders.
The Hurricanes have now won six of their last eight against the Crusaders, who lost all four of their games against fellow Kiwi heavyweights during the 2016 regular season.
If those trends continue, we’d be left with a repeat of last year’s epic final, with the Hurricanes and the Highlanders squaring off in Wellington. The Highlanders upset the competition leaders 21-14 in an absolute classic in the 2015 decider.
The still-compelling claims of the Chiefs and Crusaders notwithstanding, along with the potential of the Lions, Stormers or Brumbies to go on a finals winning streak at home, it would be a final showdown to ease the heat on competition organisers – and one hell of a rematch at the ‘Cake-Tin’.