The Highlanders did exactly what was necessary to stay alive in Invercargill on Friday night, destroying the Waratahs and winning by the biggest margin possible. This moved them into the top ten, with a possibility of being one of the final eight depending on subsequent results.
Some regarded the win as easier than expected but any fool could see it coming. When Israel Folau’s personal opinions fell foul of management and former players with social media addictions bent the knee to what hyperliberal pundits had begun calling public pressure, the dose of disharmony was fatal.
Team unity was destroyed and each player became a sitting duck for self doubt. Their performances in recent weeks had grown steadily worse and in Invercargill they made as poor a showing as this once proud franchise ever has.
The Chiefs did likewise in Melbourne soon afterwards, taking the Rebels apart. Once again a rattled opposition helped, but this time the lack of cohesion was not because a devout team member decided to publicly list his least favourite sins.
The Rebels have flattered to deceive since March. As soon as they ran out of Australian teams to out-pattycake they were dog tucker.
So the Chiefs joined the Highlanders in a shrinking group of teams who would watch the weekend’s remaining games with a vested interest.
Then the Sunwolves closed their own coffin lid with a whimper in Buenos Aires, having no answer to the Jaguares.
The Argentines are playing some of the competition’s best rugby right now, deservingly winning the South African conference. Home advantage will make them hellishly tough in knockout for as long as their good form lasts.
As is true everywhere, they’re rugby players and therefore the very best men of their nation, but with all sportsmen with too much latin DNA there remains a suspicion of emotional weakness. It’s why soccer is so popular in South America, along with civil war, narco-insurgency and marxist dictators.
By moving to 51 points the Jaguares put themselves too far clear to be overtaken by the Brumbies, which would mean home advantage in a semifinal should both teams win their quarters.
It also put them temporarily ahead of the Hurricanes but home advantage in a match between those two teams would only matter if it was the final, and the Hurricanes could secure it themselves with a win over the Blues on Saturday... which they did.
This was the first close match of the weekend, with the Blues leading for most of the game until their knack of shooting themselves in the foot got the better of them. Self-inflicted pressure from errors and poor options made them vulnerable all season. This trend continued in Wellington. Failing to guard possession played right into the Hurricanes’ hands.
Hurricanes 29 Blues 24
The Blues aren’t as bad as their 13th place on the table suggests. They’re 9th on points difference, which is a much fairer way to assess merit than the wins and losses of a lop-sided conference system, with home quarterfinal spots reserved for charity cases.
The Brumbies played by the usual blueprint based on accurate punting and set piece efficiency. The Reds played by theirs... raw-boned and highly entertaining while bordering on suicidally ill-disciplined.
Then came the most dramatic finish of the weekend, a try after the hooter by Lukanyo Am snatching both victory and a place in the playoffs from the Stormers in Cape Town.
This meant only the Lions could knock the Highlanders out of a wild card spot, but to do so they’d need to win against the bulls in Pretoria.
This proved impossible. Handre Pollard was on song, which seems to determine whether the Bulls win or not, and the Lions looked like their punishing itinerary had finally taken its toll.
We tend to regard the New Zealand conference as toughest but difficulties don’t begin and end on the pitch. The Lions had plane trips to Buenos Aires, Singapore, Canberra, Hamilton and Christchurch this year, which is especially tough when your average team member weighs seventeen stone and the rand is plummeting so quickly they have to fly in seats designed for dwarfs.
Miraculously, four New Zealand teams were left standing after the carnage. By scoring bonus point wins the Highlanders and Chiefs finished one ahead of the Lions and Stormers, who had either more wins or better points difference respectively.
So if you’re a New Zealander accepting the hospitality of a South African rugby fan I’d recommend not jabbering about an unfair conference system right now, unless of course you like getting whacked over the ear with the blunt end of whatever they’re using to chop their leathery meatstuffs.
Either way the quarterfinals all look like fascinating prospects.
(1) Crusaders v Highlanders (8)
(2) Jaguares v Chiefs (7)
(3) Brumbies v Sharks (6)
(4) Hurricanes v Bulls (5)
The Crusaders thrashed the Highlanders in Christchurch in April, after their first match-up this year was cancelled in the wake of the mosques shooting. But whoever the Crusaders were playing, they’d be prohibitive favourites.
The Brumbies and Sharks have not played each other this year and neither have the Hurricanes and Bulls, so there’s not much to go by in those two face-offs.
The Chiefs and Jaguares did meet in Buenos Aires and it was one of the regular season’s best games, a thriller won by the Chiefs 30-27 but which might have gone either way.