Will there be more Super twists?
OPINION: rugby365 columnist Brett McKay feels we are not done yet as far as Super Rugby surprises go.
Super Rugby quarterfinals decided, but is that really it for the twists?
After months of calculations and predictions, then more predictions and recalculations to rectify some over-enthusiasm around some sides, the Super Rugby finalists for 2016 have been decided.
How did my own predictions go? Well, I'm not so glad you asked…
I did manage to get the quarterfinalists right, but I'm sure I wasn't alone in getting the final order a bit out.
I predicted (guessed) the run home for the then top twelve teams two weeks prior to the June Tests, and had the conference winners in order as the Crusaders, Lions, Stormers and Brumbies for the top four positions.
In the wildcard spots, I had the Highlanders, Chiefs, Hurricanes, and Sharks.
So in reality, it's better than I thought; six of the eight teams actually did finish in the positions I'd predicted (guessed). I am glad you asked, after all!
But the final round of results has me thinking that we're not done as far as the surprises go.
Plenty of comments, tweets, and posts have been offered up already from our Kiwi friends, ranging wildly in their confidence levels that the four New Zealand teams will win through to the semifinal stage.
Never mind that one of the teams has to go to Canberra, and that two others have to go to Johannesburg and Cape Town. Or that since the advent of the conference format in Super Rugby, home teams are up 8-2 in the first week of the play-offs.
The record of travelling teams in finals over the twenty-year history of the tournament is horrendously against travelling sides, in fact; that's why home ground advantage is so important, and indeed, so keenly sought.
So just to throw a cat amongst the pigeons, what if no New Zealand sides get through to the semis?
For starters, with all four Kiwi sides boasting 11 wins and four defeats records for 2016, and all finishing within three points of each other, it would be a massive surprise if all four fell at the first hurdle. At the time of writing, Australian bookies were offering as close as doesn't matter to 40-1 on all four NZ sides losing this weekend coming.
But then, how many of us had the Chiefs and Crusaders losing in the final round? I had the Highlanders myself, but I thought Crusaders might actually do a number on the Hurricanes.
And both teams have suffered injury blows for the quarters, too. The Chiefs have lost the hugely talented centre Seta Tamanivalu to a knee injury, while blockbusting wing Nemani Nadolo hasn't travelled to Johannesburg with the Crusaders.
It just feels to me like the Stormers have built some serious momentum over these last three rounds, as much as you can read into healthy wins over the Rebels, Force and Kings.
And even considering their surprisingly shaky record at Newlands in play-offs – they're one from seven, sorry to remind you Stormers faithful – their form, along with the relative up-and-down form of the Chiefs in the second half of the season has me thinking that a win for the Stormers is very much on the cards.
That they have the best defensive record of the quarterfinalists probably underlines this sneaking suspicion.
A week ago I was pondering that the Crusaders might be the best equipped of the Kiwi sides to win at Ellis Park, but the manner of their thumping at the hands of the Hurricanes has me severely rethinking that now.
Their tour of the Republic back in late-March, early-April went very well, of course, but the stakes will be so much higher in this match, and their confidence has to have taken a dent for the way the Hurricanes picked them apart in Christchurch last Saturday.
Add to the equation that Johan Ackermann left his starting XV at home last weekend, while the Crusaders make the gruelling flight west over the Indian Ocean, and this very quickly becomes another game in which a previously high-flying New Zealand side looks vulnerable.
The Sharks beat the Hurricanes at Kings Park in early May, a win that came in the middle of a hectic touring period. They accounted themselves very well in New Zealand, with a win and two narrow defeats, and followed it up with a win in Buenos Aires over the Jaguares. For all their inconsistencies in 2016, a lack of effort on tour has not been one of them.
And the last time the Hurricanes hosted a play-off match they were supposed to win comfortably, well, we all know how that went, don't we.
So this just leaves the prospect of the Brumbies beating the Highlanders in Canberra in the first match of the play-offs this season. And I'll admit to you here and now that despite the fact I'll be sitting on the sideline for ABC Radio for this match, I'm not filled with a lot of confidence about a home team victory. They just seem to have lost all their attacking spark, the Brumbies, and I'm not sure that's the sort of thing you can just re-find in a week, never mind the first week of the play-offs.
But that all said, the Brumbies remain one of the best set piece teams in the competition, and that's where knockout matches are often run and won. There is also a very reasonable chance that one D.Pocock could make an extremely well-timed return from injury, and that certainly boosts the Brumbies' chances.
It's going to come down to how much pressure they can inflict on the breakdown and as a result, on Aaron Smith. If they can pressure him at the base of the ruck, then Lima Sopoaga doesn't enjoy the kind of service that he requires, and the rest of the Highlanders' strike weapons dine out on.
Similarly, if they can keep Ben Smith's involvements to a minimum – somehow – and take as much space away from him as is possible for any side, then the Brumbies can limit the Highlanders' counter-attacking game.
But even if they manage all that, the Brumbies still have to find a way of stressing the Highlanders' defence. They've averaged just under four tries a game in 2016, but managed only five in the last two games against the Blues and Force, teams they should really have been beating fairly comfortably.
Yet stranger things have happened in play-off matches and in knockout rugby in general.
And that very fact is something our confident Kiwi friends should probably remind themselves of. For all the bullish talk of four semi-finalists, I don't think it's that big a stretch to see that number being significantly lower.
Or none at all. You couldn't rule it out completely.
And wouldn't that be something…
By Brett McKay
* Brett McKay is an Australian rugby writer and commentator, who has sat through more Bledisloe Cup and World Cup Final losses than any human should have to endure, and is desperately hoping for a change of luck soon. For regular musings on rugby, sport, and all manner of life's trivialities, you'll find Brett on Twitter at @BMcSport