Round 19: Waratahs are finals fraudsters; no stopping the Crusaders

Super Rugby's regular season is done for 2018, after a final round that produced a couple of upsets and ensured the final make-up of the top eight remained unknown until the hooter sounded in Durban.

The Sharks' victory over the Jaguares was enough for the South Africans to squeeze into the playoffs at the expense of the Rebels by the virtue of a better for-and-against, while the Waratahs' earlier loss to the Brumbies gave the Lions the chance to snatch second spot, which they promptly did by taking down the Bulls.

Read on for some of the storylines from the weekend's action.

(Note: the venue and times for this weekend's quarterfinals are listed at the foot of this article)

Australian Conference

The signs were there seven days' prior. But the whopping scoreline and another debatable red card took the focus away from the Waratahs' poor first-half showing against the Sunwolves, leaving NSW thinking they were in much better shape than they actually were.

And the Brumbies made the Waratahs pay; made them pay big time. Instead of facing a Jaguares side already coming off two away games, the Waratahs' 40-31 loss to the Brumbies means they will now host the Highlanders at Allianz Stadium on Saturday night.

But the bad news doesn't stop there, either; the Highlanders will have a refreshed Aaron Smith, Ben Smith and Luke Whitelock back in the run-on side.

Just how a team motivated by finishing in second spot and the prospect of hosting not one, but two, finals matches, could play so badly is unfathomable. With Michael Hooper little chance of returning from injury this week, Gibson will have to perform some sort of miracle if the Waratahs are to turn around their embarrassing effort from Saturday night.

Andy Muirhead's try midway through the first half epitomised the Waratahs' lack of commitment, particularly in defence; the video session will be positively ugly viewing for two "chasing" NSW defenders.

On the strength of the 80 minutes at Allianz Stadium, the Brumbies would be a far more competitive opposition for the Highlanders in week one of the finals. Dan McKellar's side played their best rugby all season after the June break, and look to have finally settled into the attacking framework he hopes will take the franchise forward over the next few seasons.

The Brumbies will regret narrow home defeats to the Rebels and Jaguares, both games which they should have won, as they experience the playoffs as a spectator for the first time since 2014. But the turnaround since their appalling 21-8 loss to the Crusaders, where they appeared near clueless on attack, gives fans in Canberra genuine cause for optimism.

It's a feeling that could not be further from reality for their counterparts in Sydney and across NSW, as the Waratahs have looked anything but serious contenders since the June interval. While they got out of jail against the Rebels thanks to big plays from Wallabies Kurtley Beale and Bernard Foley, the Waratahs' performances against both the Sunwolves - for the first half anyway - and Brumbies suggest they are nothing more than finals fraudsters.

A Highlanders victory this Saturday will once again shine a light on the conference system's flaws after the Brumbies themselves failed to get past the opening week of the playoffs the last two years. The Waratahs finished on the same number of points (44) as the Highlanders and while NSW won their fixture in Sydney earlier this year, anything other than a repeat of the red card from that contest suggests the trend of Michael Cheika enjoying extra Bledisloe Cup preparation will continue.

History shows that's anything but good news for the Wallabies, though, either.

New Zealand Conference

Okay, so the Crusaders' pursuit of a ninth title and back-to-back Super Rugby crowns appears to be little more than a procession.

The Blues may have again failed to compete in the NZ conference this season but they at least had their moments. But the ruthlessness in which the Crusaders disposed of Tana Umaga's side on Saturday was an ominous warning for any of the seven teams hoping to catch the defending champions on an off day.

While the Waratahs were a disinterested outfit lacking any semblance of commitment, the Crusaders, who had already locked up top spot, went out and blew the Blues into oblivion. Scott Robertson has this side humming.

So just how does anyone get close to the Crusaders, and who of the seven other remaining teams has the best hope of ending their winning run?

You can put a line through the Sharks, who earned themselves a trip to Christchurch by beating the Jaguares in Round 19, and immediately add the Waratahs and Lions to that list. That leaves the Highlanders, Chiefs and Hurricanes; the two north island franchises will do battle in week one of the playoffs.

Whoever survives that contest in Wellington on Friday is likely to have to travel to Johannesburg in week two; that is unless the Waratahs complete one of the great turnarounds in Super Rugby history to beat the Highlanders.

So already the overseas travel factor, which only the Crusaders themselves have been able to overcome, is against both the Hurricanes and Chiefs. Furthermore, if their contest is anything like the one they dished up last Friday, it will be another brutally-physical 80 minutes.

Fortunately for the Chiefs, they will have a refreshed Damian McKenzie and Sam Cane back to face a Hurricanes side that has been reasonably patchy for much of the back half of the competition. Should they win at Westpac Stadium, the Chiefs are good enough to then go over to Africa and come away with the win; only for the arduous journey to take its toll on the return trip.

A better situation would be to have the Chiefs and Hurricanes hosting quarterfinals, like they deserve to, at least giving one side the chance to stay in New Zealand through the playoffs and the ability to confront the Crusaders without having potentially twice flown across the world.

But that's a question for SANZAAR.

It's one that won't be high on the Crusaders' agenda, though, after they spared the governing body's blushes with a remarkable final win in 2017. The red-and-black juggernaut again looks a lot like the one which dominated the noughties; they deserve to train in all their Christchurch comforts.

It would be an astonishing feat for anyone to go to AMI Stadium and beat them from here.

South African Conference

Defensive focus crucial if Lions are to roar

The Lions were far too strong for a depleted Bulls team and took advantage of the Waratahs' capitulation to finish second in the overall Super Rugby standings.

The Lions smashed the Bulls by 26 points at Ellis Park to set up a home playoff match against the Jaguares. A win will also ensure a semifinal at Ellis Park, while they need the Crusaders to fall along the wayside if they want to host the final like they did in 2017.

However, getting past the Jaguares on their current form is going to be easier said than done. The Lions aren't the clinical team of the past two years. They don't have the same bite on attack, while their defence has been iffy for much of the tournament.

The Joburg team let the Bulls get off to a 12-0 lead on Saturday because they didn't put enough pressure on the visitors on defence, and left holes for them to exploit. Against a team like the Jaguares, or any other team in the playoffs, they will likely be punished.

Last year, the Lions let teams get off to big leads in the playoffs and won; but they were eventually burned by the Crusaders in the final when they also had to play catch up.

The Lions' forward play will always be good while their attack has shown some signs of life. But if they want to win the Super Rugby title this year, they will need to tighten up on 'D'.


Hurricanes vs. Chiefs, 5.35pm (AEST) Friday, Westpac Stadium, Wellington

Crusaders vs. Sharks, 5.35pm (AEST) Saturday, AMI Stadium, Christchurch

Waratahs vs. Highlanders, 8.05pm (AEST) Saturday, Allianz Stadium, Sydney

Lions vs. Jaguares, 11.05pm (AEST), Saturday, Ellis Park, Johannesburg