WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) — Shock results and tight contests in the last regular-season round of Super Rugby Pacific have created a new sense of uncertainty to the quarterfinals which begin in Christchurch on Friday.
Among the eight teams which have advanced to the playoffs, the ACT Brumbies, New South Wales Waratahs, Queensland Reds, Dunedin-based Highlanders and Wellington-based Hurricanes lost their last-round matches while the Chiefs won by one point and the Blues by three points.
Only the Christchurch-based Crusaders won comfortably — by 13 points over the Reds who they will meet again in Friday’s first quarterfinal. But their performance was far from perfect, in fact so flawed in the second half that it can only give future opponents hope.
The Auckland-based Blues already were safe in first place before the last round. Their dress rehearsal for the playoffs was not without problems and for the second time in consecutive weeks, they needed a dropped goal after the fulltime siren to clinch the win.
The Blues still head into the playoffs on a club record 13-match winning streak.
In quarterfinal match-ups confirmed in the final round, the Crusaders will play the Reds on Friday and on Saturday the Chiefs will play the Waratahs in Hamilton, the Blues take on the Highlanders in Auckland and the Brumbies will play the Hurricanes in Canberra.
The Crusaders looked sharp at the start of their match against the Reds, scoring two tries to lead 14-0 after 15 minutes. But the match slowly deteriorated as tight defenses and handling errors smothered enterprise.
“If we did a couple of things a little bit better and maybe have had a couple of (decisions) turn the other way, maybe it could have been a different score,” Crusaders head coach Scott Robertson said.
The Reds have chosen to stay in Christchurch, rather than return to Brisbane to prepare for Friday’s match. They take confidence from the fact they outscored the Crusaders 12-7 in the second half.
“Not too many teams get two cracks at the Crusaders in a row and we’ll take the positives out of that game because we’ve got to,” Reds captain Tate McDermott said.
The Brumbies have work to do after their surprise loss to last-place Moana Pasifika. After scoring the opening try, the Brumbies fell behind and never regained the lead as Moana Pasifika finished their inaugural season with a win.
Even after losing captain Sekope Kepu, who received a red card for a high tackle in the 11th minute, Moana Pasifika outplayed the Brumbies.
“It’s pretty disappointing from our end,” Brumbies captain Allan Alaalatoa said. “We were outplayed and out-enthused. At least we get another shot next week in the finals and we just need to regroup and stay connected.”
The Waratahs expected to face the Brumbies in the playoffs but the Brumbies dropped from third to fourth with Saturday’s loss and the Waratahs now will face Chiefs in Hamilton.
“The probability was all leading us to Canberra,” Waratahs head coach Darren Coleman said. “Even as a coaching group we prepared today like we were going to play (in) Canberra with our previews. That was a waste of six hours. We won’t do that again.
“I don’t think it changes too much. We love being underdogs. We’ve started our whole season (as outsiders). Whether we’re going to Canberra or Hamilton it doesn’t really matter.”
The Chiefs leapfrogged the Brumbies into third place after a hard-fought 35-34 win over the Fijian Drua in Suva. The Drua trailed 35-13 with 14 minutes remaining but almost snatched the match with three late tries.
The Hurricanes held onto a playoff spot despite a 27-22 loss to the Western Force. Captain T.J. Perenara said the Hurricanes’ discipline must improve in their quarterfinal against the Brumbies.
“Discipline is going to be a massive one,” he said. “We’ve been penalized a bit, especially (in Australia) so we need to take that out of our game and make sure we can take that part out of the referee’s hands.”
The Force briefly moved above the Highlanders into eighth place. But the Highlanders needed only a point from their final match to displace the Force and achieved that, despite a 31-30 loss to the Melbourne Rebels on Sunday.
That left the Highlanders with only four wins in 14 matches, the same record and with equal competition points as the Force — 23. But the Highlanders advanced with a huge advantage in the points scored and against differential.
“It’s bittersweet but we made it in,” Highlanders captain Aaron Smith said. “If they said at the beginning of the season we’d make the playoffs we’d take that but we only scraped in.”
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