Element of uncertainty in Super Rugby Pacific playoffs

June 2, 2022 GMT

WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) — The competitiveness of Australian teams has added an element of uncertainty to Super Rugby Pacific quarterfinals.

Only two of Australia’s five franchises won matches last year in the trans-Tasman Super Rugby competition. But the better form of the Canberra-based Brumbies, Queensland Reds and New South Wales Waratahs has made a New Zealand sweep more unlikely.

Adding to the uncertainty, none of the New Zealand teams is heading into the playoffs in peak form.

The Auckland-based Blues, who ended the regular season in first place, have needed dropped goals after the full-time siren to win their last two matches against the Brumbies and Waratahs.

The Christchurch-based Crusaders lost three matches during the regular season, an unusually poor record for a team which has won the Super Rugby title 12 times. Their form has been inconsistent and, after a solid first half, they were outscored 12-7 in the second half of last weekend’s match against the Reds, who they host again on Friday.

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Five New Zealand and three Australian franchises have made the playoffs and only one of the four quarterfinals is in Australia. The Brumbies host the Hurricanes on Saturday. The Blue face the Dunedin-based Highlanders and the Hamilton-based Chiefs host the Waratahs.

The Blues finished the regular season on a club-record 13-match winning streak, 35 points and seven places above the Highlanders, who squeezed into the playoffs with only four wins and lost last weekend to the 10th-placed Melbourne Rebels.

The Highlanders will start the quarterfinals as underdogs but are comfortable with that status.

“It’s good being written off,” head coach Tony Brown said. “I think we’ll embrace the underdog tag. The Highlanders have always sort of had that tag anyway, so it suits us.”

The Blues haven’t recently been in the position of top-seed in the playoffs and will set aside their regular season form to focus more clearly on Saturday’s quarterfinal.

“We start again really,” coach Leon MacDonald said. “It’s a brand new competition for us.

“What we’ve done in the past, all it does is give you this opportunity. What we’ve tried to do is hit the start of the playoffs in the best condition as we can across the board.”

The Reds face the Crusaders in the middle of a form slump; after winning seven of their first eight matches this season, the Reds have lost five of their last six.

The Queenslanders have spent the week in Christchurch, digesting the lessons of last weekend’s loss to the Crusaders.

“We get the chance to bond as a team and get a feel for the conditions we’ll play in this Friday night,” said head coach Brad Thorn, who represented Australia in rugby league before switching codes and playing for the New Zealand All Blacks. “It’s unique to play the Crusaders back-to-back at their home. We’ll embrace the challenge.”

The Waratahs have to break a long-standing losing streak to beat the Chiefs in Hamilton. Since Super Rugby began in 1996, the Waratahs have tried six times but never won a playoffs match in New Zealand. They lost 51-27 to the Chiefs in round 10 of the regular season but assistant coach Chris Whittaker believes they have improved steadily since.

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“Each game, I think we’ve just grown more confident,” he said. “You put the Crusaders game in there, you win against Kiwi teams and then you go over there and win against the Kiwi teams, just gradually that confidence and that belief is building. Nothing is impossible.”

The Brumbies have been the top-ranked Australian team all season but go into Saturday’s quarterfinal against the Hurricanes on the back of three straight losses.

“Finals footy is completely different,” lock Tom Hooper said. “We will probably have to face New Zealand teams from now on, and to take on the Hurricanes is the first challenge and one we’re up for.”

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