The conclusion of the Super 15 regular season doesn’t mean Southern Hemisphere rugby has given all it has to offer. In fact, the best, as they say, is very much yet to come.
Although we already knew just who would be progressing to the postseason action, this weekend revealed to us just who would be pitted against whom, and as always, the outcome is far from disappointing.
Having won their conferences and taken the top two spots, the Bulls and the Chiefs have already booked their semifinal spots, leaving the Crusaders, Reds, Brumbies and Cheetahs to fight for a place as their opponents.
Although the “Curse of the Commentator” would see any such attempt at foresight go awry, here we’ll consider the lineups and attempt to envisage just how the qualifiers might pan out.
Since changing to a 15-team format, the Crusaders are yet to fail in reaching at least the semifinal stage of the Super Rugby postseason—a record they’ll strive to uphold in 2013.
The 2011 finalists were lucky to win in Round 20, overcoming a worthy Hurricanes effort thanks largely to the boot of the evergreen Dan Carter.
And how likely is the New Zealand fly-half to play a similar role in what the Christchurch side will hope is another three fixtures of the finals?
Pitted against the Reds in their qualifier, it’s a tale of second meets second; Australia’s second-best clashing with the runner-up of the New Zealand conference.
This reincarnation of the 2011 Super 15 Rugby final could have a different outcome—Queensland having come out on top of that particular encounter—with home advantage likely to be a massive factor.
Having not lost since late May, the Crusaders are in fine form (save for their Round 20 blip), and with their home record still untainted all season, the trip to New Zealand could be a tough one for the Reds.
In terms of squad strength, there’s no greater boost the Queensland Reds will receive than following the conclusion of a British and Irish Lions tour.
Although the duo of Will Genia and James Horwill were unfit to feature in the Reds’ Round 20 victory over the NSW Waratahs, Ewen McKenzie looks likely to bring his star pair back in time for the test of the Crusaders.
The welcoming of the Reds’ international stars will be essential, too, if the Brisbane outfit are to overcome a dynasty like the Crusaders, a team which it seems are engrained in Super Rugby history.
Quade Cooper’s contributions will be of particular significance. After his omission from the Australian squad for the Lions tour, the flashy figure will be out more than ever to prove his worth as a world-class No.10, albeit not to everyone’s taste.
In Horwill’s absence, James Slipper has taken the captaincy of the team, doing a decent job of it in his stead.
The likes of Digby Ioane and Luke Morahan are some other faces who are bound to prove vital in returning from international action. However, the Reds will need their stock players—players who’ve been a force for the entire season, such as Liam Gill and Beau Robinson—to maintain their high standards as well.
One of two Australian teams making their way to the qualifiers, the Brumbies’ performances during the regular season weren’t enough to ensure them a semifinal spot.
Instead, the third-placed side will face the lowest-ranked wild-card side, the Cheetahs, as they seek to join their fellow conference winners in the next phase of the tournament.
However, the Canberra-based outfit aren’t coming into this match with the best of form, having lost their final game of regular season 21-15 to third-from-bottom Western Force.
An anomaly such as this is to be expected, considering the team hadn’t had a competitive game for more than a month previous. But with Australia’s other four clubs all managing to show impressive pedigree in Round 20, questions must still be raised.
This season is the Brumbies’ first postseason appearance at the qualifying stage, and Jake White’s men won’t come upon many better chances to advance even further.
The return of Stephen Moore, Ben Alexander, Christian Leali’ifano, Pat McCabe and Joe Tomane from their Australia duties will provide a morale boost for the Brumbies.
For the past two seasons, the Central Cheetahs have floated around Super 15 Rugby mediocrity—neither the worst of South African provinces nor its finest outfit.
However, a 2013 surge has seen the side seemingly capitalise on the misery of the expelled Lions, bringing about unheralded success for South Africa’s newest big guns.
The Cheetahs managed to pull off an impressive second-place finish in the South African conference, sixth in the overall table and advancing as the lowest-ranked wild-card team as a result.
Such a reputation may work in their favour, though, with a nothing-to-lose attitude often bringing about favourable results for the underdog.
On paper, Naka Drotske’s side would appear massive underdogs to win against the Brumbies but have managed some impressive wins last season, including upsets against the Reds, Highlanders and Waratahs.