After a relatively inconsequential weekend for the three conference winners from New Zealand, Australia and South Africa, the stakes suddenly become very real this weekend as we head into the qualifier knock out round for Super Rugby.
The Lineout is not covering any of last weekend’s matches in detail as for all intents and purposes they had little bearing on the overall scheme of things and how this coming weekend would pan out. New Zealand conference winners, the Hurricanes played the Chiefs, but were already guaranteed a home semi-final spot so even an unlikely loss to the Chiefs would not really have mattered. However, the Hurricanes turned it on in their usual style and easily emerged the winners. The Chiefs were competitive all match and it was great to see All Blacks and Chiefs lock Brodie Retallick back to his very best. Worryingly though for the Chiefs their star scrum half Augustine Pulu was ruled out of any further Super Rugby action with a broken arm. However, as good as the Chiefs were they were still outclassed by an essentially full strength Hurricanes side and it really remains to be seen whether anyone can take out the Men from Wellington when it really matters.
For the Australian conference the Brumbies had it all to do to try to knock the Waratahs out of the top position on the Australian table. The Waratahs had a comfortable last game at home against the hopeless Reds so there never really was going to be much of a competition there. Although the Waratahs played a poor first half, they soon found all the right gears in the second and essentially eclipsed a woeful Reds side. The Brumbies on the other hand had the unenviable task of trying to dismantle a rejuvenated Crusaders team who were playing their last game with iconic teammates and All Blacks Richie McCaw and Dan Carter. That the team was fired up to give these two legends a fitting send-off was an understatement! Even at home the Brumbies didn’t really stand a chance, especially when you figure Fiji’s version of Jonah Lomu – Nemani Nadolo into the equation. The Fijian winger has been truly incredible this season for the Crusaders and is a one man wrecking ball striking fear into the hearts of all his opponents. Australia, England and Wales are surely racking their brains as to how they are going to contain this Fijian cruise missile in the pool stages of the World Cup. Sure enough Nadolo did not disappoint in the match against the Brumbies and was instrumental in everything the Crusaders did in Canberra as well as scoring two tries of his own which showcased the man’s exceptional range of talents. The Brumbies looked good all match but unless they are using their tried and trusted as well as devastatingly effective rolling maul, they don’t seem to really have much else to terrorise opposing teams with. In short it was a bridge too far for the Brumbies, especially given the stroll in the park their rivals for top spot in Australia, the Waratahs had to deal with. As a result, the Brumbies now face the unenviable task of having to make the trek across the Indian Ocean to Cape Town to take on the Stormers in the qualifiers.
Meanwhile in Durban, a South African derby between the Sharks and the Stormers was a fairly pointless affair as the results earlier in the weekend had sealed the fate of the Stormers for the coming weekend -a home qualifier against either the Brumbies or Waratahs which as we know is now to be the Brumbies. It was a torrid affair which saw a Stormers B team be dismantled by a Sharks team that after an awful season needed to salvage some pride as they said goodbye to Sharks and Springbok stalwarts the Duplessis brothers. In short, a meaningless game which had no real bearing on the overall Super Rugby picture.
Fixtures this Weekend
Highlanders vs Chiefs
Saturday, June 20th
What a massive prospect this one is going to be! Both these teams have easily been the runners-up to the Hurricanes all season, and despite numerous debates in the press about the seeming unfairness of the conference system, I can’t help agreeing that is unfortunate that only one of these superb teams will get to duke it out with the Hurricanes in the semi-final. Nevertheless, it is what is and we still have a mouth-watering prospect for any rugby fan to look forward to this Saturday.
In terms of how to call this one, it’s almost impossible. These teams are so evenly matched that there is very little between them. On paper I would say that as the Chiefs are without star scum half Augustine Pulu, and given the fact that the match is being played in Dunedin, I would just and I emphasise JUST give the Highlanders the edge. In the battle of the forwards I think especially given the fact that they will have the mighty Brodie Retallick, the Chiefs should just have the edge. However, once the ball gets distributed by Highlanders and All Black scrum half Aaron Smith, then you know that the Men from Dunedin’s back line is going to take some serious stopping. Highlanders fullback Ben Smith has been inspirational all season and you know in front of a home crowd with everything to play for he will be even better.
The Chiefs will be playing Damian McKenzie at fullback, and while I have been exceptionally impressed with him at halfback it will be interesting to see how and if he will be able to contain his opposite number Ben Smith. Sonny Bill Williams was very impressive for the Chiefs last weekend and alongside cousin Tim Nanai-Williams expect some fireworks in midfield.
In short it is going to be close, ever so close but if I were a betting man I would be willing to stick my neck out and just give it to the Highlanders by 2 or 3 points. Either way it will be a battle royale that every rugby fan should make sure they catch!
Stormers vs Brumbies
Saturday, June 20th
Two very physical sides will take each other on in Cape Town on Saturday with two distinctly different methods of attack. The Brumbies will aim to keep possession through solid work from their forwards, with Scott Fardy, Stephen Moore, Ben Alexander and Scott Sio at the forefront, building pressure until they can release their devastating rolling maul with danger man of the season, David Pocock at the back as the stinger. In short, this element of the Brumbies game plan has been so strong that it has meant that star backs like Matt Toomua and Tevita Kuridrani have often been left in the shadows for much of the season, which is a shame as in a Wallabies jersey this pair has given us some terrific displays of running rugby. There was concern that after a concussion scare in last weekend’s game against the Crusaders, Pocock may have been ruled out of this contest and the Brumbies would be less than effective. However, as we saw last weekend, his replacement Jarrad Butler was more than able to cover for him, scoring a try of his own from the back of the rolling maul.
The Stormers on the other hand will be without talismanic captain Duane Vermeulen and it remains to be seen how well they will hold up against concerted forward pressure from the Brumbies. There is no doubting the Stormers awesome physicality, especially in the form of Eben Etzebeth and Schalk Burger. These two will be at the forefront of organising the Stormers defenses and we have seen repeatedly how effective Eben Etzebeth is at last-ditch defence. Expect to see a reborn Schalk Burger developing a full head of steam and bludgeoning his way through the Brumbies’ defences. If Burger breaks through then expect to see Stormers centre Damien De Allende at centre show off his own brand of high-speed physicality as he wreaks havoc in midfield especially since he seems to have cured his ball handling problems in his last two outings. If De Allende is effective in the centre then expect some dazzling speed and breaks on the wing from revelation of the South African season, Seabelo Senatla as the former Blitzbokke gets to show off his skills. Lastly, the diminutive pocket rocket at fullback, Cheslin Kolbe has amazed everyone with his skillset as he has shown he is more than capable of attacking from deep and making huge gains into opposition territory. Despite his size he has never shied from the physical aspect of the game and is solid physically both in attack and defence.
In short, another one that will be hard to call. On paper the home ground advantage for the Stormers will be very hard to beat even without Duane Vermeulen. However, I can’t help feeling that as many others have said the Brumbies experience at the knockout stages in Super Rugby will ultimately see them through an exceptionally difficult and challenging encounter. It will be physical, very physical but if the Brumbies can handle it, I expect them to just carry the day. In short, the Brumbies to take it by no more than 2! Another incredible contest awaits us all – let’s hope it lives up to it!