The Lions finished second in the overall standings and the Sharks advanced to the playoffs on the back of two favourable results in Australasia, writes JON CARDINELLI.
The final round of the Super Rugby conference stage could not have panned out more favourably for South Africa’s leading teams. The upshot is that the Lions and Sharks will represent the country in the quarter-finals of the tournament.
The Highlanders did the Sharks a favour when they beat the Rebels 43-37 in Dunedin on Saturday. Later on, the Sharks beat the Jaguares 20-10 in Durban to finish level with the Rebels on log points (36) and wins (seven).
The Sharks will advance to the playoffs thanks to their superior points-difference. They may be hard-pressed to progress beyond the quarter-finals, though, as their first playoff task sees them travelling to Christchurch to tackle the Crusaders – who recently finished the conference stage with a 14 from 16 win record.
South Africa’s best bet for the title at this stage are the Lions. Thanks to the results in Sydney and Johannesburg this past Saturday, Swys de Bruin’s side is now in a position to host a semi-final.
The Waratahs lost 40-31 to the Brumbies in Sydney, and ultimately failed to add to their 44-point log tally. The Lions, who began the round on 41 points, went on to beat the Bulls 38-12 and have surpassed the Waratahs in the overall standings.
That latter result saw the Lions finishing at the top of the South African pile for the third-consecutive year. More importantly, it earned them a second-place finish in the overall standings and, providing they win next week, the right to host a semi-final.
The Lions will host the Jaguares in the quarter-finals. While they lost heavily to the Jaguares in Buenos Aires, they managed to beat the Argentinians in the earlier fixture at Ellis Park.
The Jaguares may be hurting after their recent loss to the Sharks in Durban. The good news for Mario Ledesma’s side, however, is that they won’t have to travel extensively for the quarter-finals, as may have been the case if the Waratahs had finished second in the standings. The Jaguares will receive a timely boost when they welcome back a few first-choice players next week.
The Highlanders have also benefited from the recent turn of events. Having finished sixth in the standings, they will face the Waratahs, who finished third, in the quarter-finals.
Needless to say, the Highlanders will prefer a relatively short trip from Dunedin to Sydney as opposed to a long journey from New Zealand’s south island to Johannesburg.
That said, whoever wins in Sydney next week may have to cross the Indian Ocean for a semi-final. If the Lions beat the Jaguares, they will host the Waratahs or the Highlanders in the penultimate round of the playoffs.
The odds are against the Sharks winning a quarter-final in Christchurch. No South African side has ever won a playoff in this part of the world. What’s more, the Crusaders have moved up a gear in terms of their performances over the past few weeks.
The Lions could still host the final, providing that they win their next two games and providing that another team stops the Crusaders.
The Sharks are unlikely to do the Lions – or indeed themselves – any favours on this front. However, the winner of the quarter-final between the Hurricanes and Chiefs could well aid the Lions’ cause if they go on to beat the Crusaders in the semi-finals.
The Hurricanes have featured regularly in the playoffs over the past few seasons, and won the title as recently as 2016. The Chiefs have won four of their last five matches, including the game against the Hurricanes in Hamilton last Friday.
Can either of these teams beat the Crusaders in Christchurch? The answer to that question may determine whether the 2018 Super Rugby final is played in New Zealand or South Africa in three weeks’ time.
SUPER RUGBY QUARTER-FINALS
Crusaders vs Sharks, Christchurch
Lions vs Jaguares, Johannesburg
Waratahs vs Highlanders, Sydney
Hurricanes vs Chiefs, Wellington
Photo: Anton Geyser/Gallo Images