20 Jul 2017

At the business end of Super Rugby

11:44 am on 20 July 2017

Opinion: In a piece of scheduling more clunky than a battleship trying to parallel park, we find ourselves in week one of the Super Rugby playoffs after a six-week truncated break.

The Super Rugby Trophy.

The Super Rugby Trophy. Photo: PHOTOSPORT

With the unbelievable ending to the British and Irish Lions tour still fresh in the minds, the southern hemisphere's premier domestic competition snuck in the back door to play its final round last weekend.

It had a few notable results that did not even include the top teams - the axed Cheetahs and Kings playing out a thriller in their last ever game before joining the Pro12 for some reason, the Waratahs being humiliated one final time in their worst season ever, and the plucky Sunwolves putting almost 50 points on the shameful Blues.

All of those teams have probably spent the week having a few beers and relaxing, but to be fair, they would have all known that's what they'd be doing a long time ago anyway.

You could've picked the eight teams that would make up the finalists before the season even started. The Crusaders, Hurricanes, Chiefs and Highlanders were always going to be the top NZ sides, while the Lions, Sharks and Stormers are clearly the best out of South Africa. The only conjecture would've been over who would be the least awful Australian side, and the Brumbies have only just managed to do that.

So the fixtures are set, with some intriguing storylines to go with them. The first match takes place in Canberra, with the vagaries of the Super Rugby system awarding a home playoff to the Brumbies despite them having half the number of wins than their opponents, the Hurricanes.

The Canes go in as understandably heavy favourites, especially now that captain and first choice All Black hooker Dane Coles has finally returned from injury. He'll come off the bench, however so will Brumbies back Christian Lealiifano.

Dane Coles celebrates the Hurricanes' Super Rugby final win over the Lions at Westpac Stadium in Wellington.

Dane Coles celebrates the Hurricanes' Super Rugby final win over the Lions at Westpac Stadium in Wellington. Photo: PhotoSport

While Coles has battled concussion-like symptoms that made him contemplate retirement, Lealiifano was diagnosed with leukemia last year. He's now ready to complete an incredible recovery by taking the field this Friday night, if that doesn't motivate the Brumbies then nothing will.

Saturday night in Christchurch is probably the most anticipated feature of the weekend, with the 14-1 Crusaders finding themselves in a much tougher playoff than they probably thought they'd have a week ago.

Their loss to the Hurricanes last weekend meant that they gave up the top of the table to the Lions, and instead of a gimme match against the Sharks they'll face a fired-up Highlanders team.

The last time these two met was an absolute classic, sealed with probably the best drop goal you'll ever see. The Highlanders will still be dirty about that finish, and there is every chance the Crusaders' season could come to a premature end if they're not on their game.

The first of the overnight matches in South Africa takes place in Johannesburg, where the Lions should have little problem dispatching the Sharks. That's because they've already done once in the last week, handing out a regulation thumping in Durban.

The Lions are the best team in South Africa right now and daylight is second, and a win here will mean the road to the title will most likely have to go through Ellis Park.

The match with arguably the most potential for entertainment will take place in Cape Town, where the Chiefs visit the Stormers in another case of a team with a much worse record getting home advantage.

However, at least the Stormers can claim a victory over the Chiefs this year, in a game that contained some absolutely outstanding skills.

If the Chiefs do go on and win, they face a daunting task to take out the title.

The only way they can make the final is if it's back in South Africa, which could mean two 20,000km round trips in two weeks. Good luck boys.

*Jamie Wall grew up in Wellington and enjoyed a stunningly mediocre rugby career in which the single highlight was a seat on the bench for his club's premier side. He's enjoyed far more success spouting his viewpoints on the game, and other topics, to anyone who'll care to listen.

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