Winners and Losers for Super Rugby Round 19
Super Rugby's elite headed into the closing stage of their normal season on Saturday, each holding different prospects regarding what might come of their 2014 campaign.
Waratahs had already sealed their spot as first-place finishers last weekend, booking priority placement in the playoffs, but Round 19 gave others in the Southern Hemisphere their chance to make a late break on the post-season.
For some, this was the end of the road, while for others, it was just the beginning of a new phase in their competition. Read on for a breakdown of those teams and individuals who saw differing fortunes so close to the campaign's end.
Winners: Crusaders Complete Playoff Revival
Except for the Waratahs, no side is enjoying better form than the Crusaders at present, and Todd Blackadder's side clinched second place on Saturday with a 34-8 battering of the Highlanders.
Edging the Sharks by a single point, the Canterbury giants now march into another Super Rugby semi-final, where they will face either the Brumbies or the Chiefs at AMI Stadium, hitting top speed at the ideal time in their campaign.
A Matt Todd brace of tries, along with scores from Nemani Nadolo and Corey Flynn, urged the Crusaders onto a confident finish in their normal season, which they'll hope to carry over in the weeks to come.
As a franchise, the Crusaders have an incredible knack for mental fortitude; they are forever able to muster resolve when it matters most. The most successful franchise of all time now has a superb chance to add another title to its collection.
Losers: Mark Hammett's Hurricanes Dumped out of Contention
It was out of their hands and not quite unexpected, but now it's official: The Hurricanes' season is over.
The bye week will have been agonising for any 'Canes fan to take in, with the Chiefs and Brumbies both winning to push the Dunedin outfit out of their top-six surroundings.
After they finished seventh overall, a point was all that kept Mark Hammett's club from extending their season, which is especially frustrating when one considers they might have prevented it had they not lost to the Highlanders twice.
In each of those encounters, the Hurricanes missed out by small margins, claiming two losing bonus points, but the exit was ultimately deserved, as they allowed others to decide their fate in the end.
Winners: Heyneke Meyer Sees His Springboks Impress
This weekend's action included two South African clashes. The Lions rounded off their campaign on high, beating the Cheetahs 60-25 in Johannesburg, while the Sharks earned a 34-10 victory away to the Stormers.
And even though the Cheetahs' disappointment condemned them to a 14th-place finish in the standings, Heyneke Meyer's potential Springbok stars impressed en masse.
Willie Le Roux, Cornal Hendricks and Johan Goosen all contributed well on the scoreline, while Francois Steyn was in fine kicking form to notch seven of his eight attempts in Cape Town.
Handre Pollard also held a fine account of his ability during the Bulls' 40-7 win over the Rebels, giving Meyer a sound sense of confidence in his options leading up to the Rugby Championship.
Losers: Queensland on Red Alert
It's been the story of their entire 2014 campaign, but the Queensland Reds' capitulation reached its climax in Brisbane on Saturday. Ironically, the Waratahs handed them a final defeat of the season.
Richard Graham's side looked to be lacking in motivation more than ever en route to a 34-2 loss in front of a home audience, and 13th place is their reward for such a terribly forgettable season.
A long road to recovery lies ahead for the franchise, where defence should most certainly be considered a priority in preparation for 2015. With fan support wavering, the Reds' realisation of their plummet is now tangible.
Winners: Waratahs Show Substance as Well as Sizzle
And on the other end of that result were of course New South Wales' heroes, the Waratahs, who now have a fortnight to wait before resuming competition in search of a maiden Super Rugby title.
Some players were rested in what was ultimately a low-risk fixture, but even those fringe options showed that there's immense depth to be praised in this squad.
A fine blend of both superstar options and players who have previously lacked in consistency—Kurtley Beale springs to mind—will see the Australians head into the post-season with high hopes of adding more silverware to their cabinet this year.
This, however, will be unchartered territory for a lot of the squad, and so it's a huge bonus that morale is at an all-time high. It is vital, however, that confidence doesn't spill over into complacency.
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