Opinion: Chiefs, Crusaders lurking, but Blues appear unstoppable

Anzelo Tuitavuki celebrates Moana Pasifika's victory over the Brumbies in their final match of the season.

A final Super Rugby Pacific round which promised so little, with the top seven of eight finalists already guaranteed, delivered so much; upsets, a near upset, another late win for the high-flying Blues and another Highlanders’ self-destruction.

In the end, it was probably the best round of the season – even allowing for the mistake-ridden kick-fest that was the Crusaders’ victory over the Reds in Christchurch. The Crusaders' 28-15 win could have come at a huge cost regarding their premier loose forward Pablo Matera.

As it was, Matera’s tip tackle in a scrappy second half earned him a yellow card rather than a red which would have ruled one of their best forwards out of the playoffs, but the margin was tight and the alternative would have been disappointing for coach Scott Robertson to say the least.

In the curious case of the Highlanders, the southerners contrived to steal a defeat from the jaws of victory and a win of sorts from a loss.

Up 18-14 against the Rebels in Melbourne at halftime and apparently cruising, their leaky defence cost them in the end, although replacement halfback Folau Fakatava’s cameo was eye-catching.

They lost 31-30, their losing bonus point enough to put them into a quarter-final against the Blues at Eden Park on Saturday.

Analysis: How Moana Pasifika's upset win shakes up playoff mix

That they managed to finish within seven points of the Rebels hurt the Western Force, in particular.

The Western Australians would have gone through had the Rebels scored another converted try, but the Highlanders, who also finished with 23 competition points and four victories from 14 matches, had a vastly superior points differential.

Say what you like about 66% of a competition making the finals, or indeed the Highlanders making it with only four victories all season (and plenty have), but Tony Brown's team are far better qualified to push the Blues than the Force are.

While the Force beat the Hurricanes, who were without head coach Jason Holland and key back Jordie Barrett due to illness, 27-22 in Perth, they previously coughed up 60 points to the Highlanders in Dunedin and the Crusaders put 50 on them on their home ground.

So the competition probably has the finalists it deserves, but that’s not to say those four teams who missed out didn’t make their mark – and indeed they made probably made their biggest impact in the final round.

Loose forward Marino Mikaele-Tu'u, along with replacement halfback Folau Fakatava, was one of the Highlanders' best against the Rebels.

Moana Pasifika’s stunning 32-22 upset of the Brumbies at Mount Smart Stadium has changed the look of the playoffs mix and potentially pits the Crusaders against the Chiefs in a semifinal, providing they beat the Reds in their quarter-final in Christchurch on Friday.

It meant too that Aaron Mauger’s men finished a predictably difficult season – made worse by Covid and a re-arranged match schedule which tested the limits of their players' welfare - on a high.

It was an extraordinary achievement against one of the better sides in the competition. How significant will that be for a franchise who would have had few expectations in terms of wins in their first year?

The Fijian Drua saved their best for last on nearly every level when they scored three tries in the final 10 minutes against the Chiefs in front of a packed Lautoka stadium, but they lost 35-34.

Sparking that extraordinary finish was one of the best tries of the Super season. Midfielder Kalaveti Ravouvou’s try started on his own try-line with wing Vinaya Habosi pulling off a tackle-breaking scene more suited to junior rugby than Australasia’s premier domestic competition.

And yet despite what turned out to be a narrow win for the Chiefs, there is a sense that Clayton McMillan’s men have far more to give, starting in their quarter-final against the Waratahs and potentially a week later against the Crusaders.

Brodie Retallick is back, and Sam Cane’s knee injury suffered a week earlier against the Force should be on the mend. He was expected to miss only the Drua match.

They are lurking and, along with the Crusaders, appear the only team who can challenge the Blues at Eden Park.

There will be question marks over the injury status of Rieko Ioane and Caleb Clarke, who both have hamstring injuries, but the Blues are on such a roll they appear unstoppable.

Should they beat the Highlanders as expected, they will face either the Brumbies or Hurricanes in their semifinal.

It’s not the toughest draw and they probably exceeded expectations in going to Sydney with what was effectively a B team and beating the Waratahs with a performance of grit and power backed up by an extraordinary piece of skill by Zarn Sullivan in kicking his 82nd-minute dropped goal.

Sullivan was deep, far deeper than Beauden Barrett a week earlier in Canberra when he sealed it with a similar kick against the Brumbies.

The Blues have something special this season and it will take a monumental effort, likely from the Crusaders or Chiefs, to beat them.


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