The Super Rugby regular season came to a close this weekend, with many of the favourites suffering defeats and allowing the Hurricanes to slip in the back door and top the table.
Chris Boyd's men won handsomely against the Crusaders, before watching both the Chiefs and Lions suffer surprise defeats, meaning Wellington will host the final in back-to-back years if the Hurricanes can win their next two playoff fixures.
The Canes will face the Sharks in the quarter-finals, while the Lions host the Crusaders. Also, the Brumbies will welcome the Chiefs to the Australian capital, and the Stormers will take on the Highlanders in the last eight next weekend.
Ackerman’s gamble fails as Jaguares topple Lions in Buenos Aires
Topping the table heading into the final round of games, Lions head coach Johann Ackermann made the bold decision to rest over 20 players for their final game against the Jaguares.
With Ackermann deciding that travelling to-and-from Argentina before a quarter-final was not something he wanted to put his stars through, the boss named a squad short of Super Rugby experience, and it showed as they suffered a 34-22 defeat at the hands of the Jaguares.
Results elsewhere meant that all the Lions needed to confirm top spot was a losing bonus-point, yet they didn’t even achieve that, and have lost the chance to make sure the playoffs will run through Ellis Park.
The South African’s started well enough, and scored the first three tries in the game, two of which came from Anthonie Volmink and the other from electric full-back Sylvain Mahuza.
Nicolas Sanchez had kept the Jaguares score ticking-over with four penalty goals, which meant that when Facundo Isa crossed for their first try in the 48th minute they were only down by five points.
From the moment Isa drove over the line, the Jaguares completely dominated the remainder of the match, with their scrum supremacy helping them get on the front-foot.
A penalty try and Matias Alemanno’s five-pointer extended the Jaguares lead out past bonus-point range for the Lions, who suffered two yellow cards to forward pair Cyle Brink and Lourens Erasmus as poor discipline cost them the match and first place on the Super Rugby table.
The other South African conference winner, the Stormers, suffered a pair of worrying injuries in their 52-24 thrashing of the Kings ahead of a home quarter-final next weekend.
Jean-Luc du Plessis and Cobus van Wyk both hobbled from the field and will be doubts for the Stormers playoff campaign on an otherwise encouraging afternoon for Robbie Fleck’s side.
Scottish international Huw Jones dazzled at Newlands, scoring four tries in the rout, with Leolin Zas adding a hat-trick of his own from the left-wing.
Brandon Thompson also leapt over the line as the score passed 50, with the Kings registering three tries of their own through Malcolm Jaer, Stefan Watermeyer and Wandie Mjekevu.
Hurricanes leapfrog trio to top Kiwi conference after enthralling double-header
The final Saturday of the regular season in New Zealand, saw the top four sides all jostling for position after confirming their playoff spots over the previous weeks.
With just three points separating the top four, and only one home quarter-final available to the conference champion, a real battle royal was set up for players and fans alike.
In the opening game on Saturday evening in Christchurch, a stunned home crowd saw the Crusaders go down to a 35-10 defeat at the hands of the Hurricanes, who picked up a try bonus point in the process.
Jason Woodward’s early try gave the visitors a 7-0 lead, before the Crusaders hit back to take the lead thanks to the boot of Richie Mo’unga and a five-pointer from Ryan Crotty.
On the cusp of half-time, the Hurricanes retook the lead, when scrum-half TJ Perenara charged down Mitchell Drummond’s attempted clearance before getting a favourable bounce to dive over for his fifth try of the season.
The second-half belonged exclusively to the Canes’, who scored 21 unanswered points to leapfrog their opponents into top spot in the New Zealand conference.
Willis Halaholo bumped off a weak tackle attempt by Matt Todd to score the Canes third try, and then substitute Callum Gibbons took an inside ball from James Marshall before beating three men to dive over under the posts.
After the siren had gone, Beauden Barrett added some gloss to the scoreline, intercepting a pass close to the Crusaders line and then diving over to confirm the 25-point victory.
In the second highly-anticipated encounter, the Highlanders saw off the Chiefs 25-15 at Forsyth Barr Stadium in Dunedin to finish second in the Kiwi division.
An intense match saw the Chiefs race out into an early lead thanks to a try from Toni Pulu, with the home side then hitting back with a stunning effort of their own which was finished off by Waisake Naholo to trail 7-5 at the break.
A yellow-card to Chiefs flanker Tom Sanders was a major turning-point in the game, with the home side taking full advantage, winning that ten-minute period 10-0 thanks to five points from the boot of Lima Sopoaga, and a sparkling try which was finished off by Dan Pryor.
Lachlan Boshier dived over in the corner to reduce the deficit to three points, but then a try from Sopoaga five minutes from time wrapped-up the victory for the hosts and an away trip to Australia in the first round of the playoffs.
Sharks confirm wildcard spot with hard-fought victory over Sunwolves
The Sharks moved into the eighth and final playoff spot with a 40-29 victory at home to the Sunwolves, beating out the Bulls, who’s win over the Cheetahs was nothing more than a consolation after they missed out on the postseason by two points.
In Durban, the Sharks were expected to ease to victory against their Japanese opponents, but found it tough to shake the Sunwolves in the first-half, leading by just two at the break. Tries by Coenie Ooosthuizen, Lwazi Mvovo and JP Pietersen in the opening 20 minutes gave the hosts a great start, before they were pegged back by scores from Fa’atiga Lemalu, Mifiposeti Paea and Kaito Shigeno.
Andre Esterhuizen extended the Sharks lead to nine with a try in the opening minute of the second half, before the game became fractured with just three points in the next half-hour from the boot of Yu Tamura.
The final ten minutes were then back to the frantic levels of scoring from the first-half, with Garth April and Curwin Bosch crossing to confirm the Sharks playoff spot, before the Sunwolves ended their debut Super Rugby season by scoring a consolation in the final minute through Paea.
With the playoffs out of their grasp, the Bulls registered their ninth win of the campaign, beating the Cheetahs 43-19 in Bloemfontein.
Renaldo Bothma and Travis Imsaiel both scored try braces for the Bulls, adding to Jamba Ulengo’s late score, with the hosts recording just two tries through Clayton Blommetjies and Carl Wegner.
Brumbies claim Australian conference, stumbling into playoffs
Australian rugby has endured a tough couple of months, with Super Rugby struggles coming on the back of a 3-0 Test series defeat at home to England.
Going into the final set of fixtures, the Waratahs and Brumbies were tied on 39 points and with the Kiwi sides wrapping-up the wildcard spots, only one of the Australian sides were going to take part in the end-of-season playoffs.
The Waratahs got first crack in round 17, when they headed to Auckland to face the bottom side from New Zealand, the Blues. Unfortunately for Daryl Gibson, his charges were outplayed for large periods of the match, eventually going down to a 34-28 defeat, all-but ending their playoff hopes.
Despite being awarded two penalty tries, the Australians found themselves 17-12 down after 50 minutes, following tries from Piers Francis and Patrick Tuipulotu for the hosts.
Israel Folau and Angus Ta’avao scored in the final quarter for Gibson’s side, yet scores from Melani Nanai and George Moala lead the Blues to a victory which has given them more hope for next season.
Following Friday’s result, all the Brumbies needed was one match point against the lowly Force, and they managed that with ease, winning 24-10 in Canberra.
A Ben Tapuai interception gave the Force hope of a stunning result midway through the first-half, but a try apiece for centre partners Matt Toomua and Tevita Kuridrani, alongside a penalty try meant the Brumbies booked a home quarter-final.
In a dead-rubber between the Queensland Reds and Melbourne Rebels at Suncorp, a try-double by Sean McMahon led the away side to a 31-28 win and their seventh victory of the campaign.
Both sides knew that whatever the result they were going to end the season with losing seasons, and in an exciting game which saw both teams cross the try line four times it was the Rebels who prevailed by three points.
McMahon’s early break led to the game’s opening try for Tom English, before the flanker powered over twice himself as the visitors moved into a 24-7 half-time lead.
Liam Gill and Samu Kerevi added to Nick Frisby’s first-half score to move the Reds within three, before Nic Stirzaker charged down a kick before re-gathering to extend the lead back out to ten.
Gill’s second close-range effort cut the deficit to three once more, but as hard as they tried in the final moments the Reds couldn’t force the winning score and ended the season with just three wins from their 15 fixtures.