Teams and rugby fans became more familiar with ‘knockout rugby’ when two matches last weekend had a direct influence on the make-up of the quarterfinalists for the 2019 Super Rugby finals series.
Those two games in South Africa were a blessing for one struggling New Zealand side; the Highlanders. Sitting on the cusp of a place in the playoffs, they had to await the outcome of the Bulls Lions game. That result would eventually go the way of the home side, and thus influence the make-up of the last eight.
In the other, the Stormers (see main photo) could not break through the stern Sharks defense. A last-gasp win by the visiting Sharks a reward for perseverance rather than extravagant attack or bonus point countback.
After 18 Rounds and 120 matches of the regular season the quarter-finalists are:
Full details: Pretoria.https://t.co/IF04GsmifX pic.twitter.com/Ozl9exQH5R
— Super Rugby (@SuperRugby) June 15, 2019
Now the prize is within reach of those premium sides, the reality is almost within players grasp. After the many months of preseason, followed by nearly five months of competition – it now becomes a knockout rugby scenario. Week-to-week games, where only one team progresses further.
Quarterfinalists prepare for Knockout Rugby
On Monday morning, after your team’s name was listed in the quarterfinalists draw, the time is right. Time to concentrate solely on this first round of the 2019 finals series.
And concentrate solely on your opponent’s strengths and weaknesses.
Friday June 21 – Crusaders v Highlanders. Christchurch
While good fortune saw them slip into the quarterfinals, it only placed them in eighth position. What that meant was you face the top seed. And in 2019; as it was in 2018, that side is the Crusaders.
A huge task. In fact, one that in knockout rugby situations, the Highlanders have yet to defeat the Crusaders at.
Even while they are facing the current champions, the local derby is a familiar occasion. So if the Mainlanders can put the situation into context, focus solely on matching the player opposite them, then they could be in with a chance. They last beat the ‘Saders in 2018, so it is an accomplishment that the South Island team are able to achieve.
Although, if there is one rugby side in all of Super Rugby who has supreme success in knockout rugby clashes, the Crusaders top the list.
So when Scott Robertson assembled his men Monday (after enjoying the last round bye), they will naturally feel confident. With returning All Blacks like Joe Moody, then it will be a step for this side, on a possible road to a ‘three peat’ of Super Rugby titles.
Friday – Jaguares v Chiefs. Buenos Aires
The conference winner, the surprise performer of 2019 – that deserves a prize in itself. So while the Jaguares will be grateful and will be patting themselves on their backs – congratulations – now attention needs to be turn immediately toward their first home quarterfinal.
Traveling to Buenos Aires, the Chiefs have the opposite feeling. They will actually feel relieved. Positive results in the last few rounds; including a huge win over the Crusaders, will have Colin Cooper happy. Not overly confident, but with a belief that they have the character to overcome adversity and have given themselves a chance.
Congrats to the Chiefs and Colin Cooper. Amazing feat to lose your first four, not have D Mac, Cane and Retallick for most of the season and still make the playoffs. #ChiefsMana
— John Day (@John_Day_) June 14, 2019
Attitude is everything, so both teams will need to be at their peak. That is something that coaches and fitness trainers have aimed for for months on end. That players are conditioned to perform at their peak now.
Each side must use motivation to propel them past the quarters. In knockout rugby, there is no tomorrow. Admittedly, Cooper has had a less than pleasant memory of the realities of finals rugby, so is deserving of some luck. Whereas the South American team are in the best position possible.
They were second qualifiers, so if anything were to happen to the Crusaders, then there is every possibility that the Jaguares may be in a position to host a Super Rugby grand final.
Not to get too far ahead of themselves. But the ultimate reward is now in the hands of Agustin Creevy and his teammates.
Saturday June 22 – Hurricanes v Bulls. Wellington
Another match hosted in New Zealand, as the Hurricanes took the Wildcard fourth place. They achieved this with more regular season wins than the Crusaders [who had the drawn results]. So the ‘Canes enter this series in form.
The Bulls may not have quite met that same level but, the team from Pretoria can be more than satisfied with their season. So that must be transferred into a performance now away from home.
— Newsafricanow (@newsafricanow) June 16, 2019
News that the team will only reach Wellington by Wednesday does put them behind; in terms of preparation. But after huge final round win over the Lions, they needed to rest up. The battle for qualification now over, the team’s mind must now switch to knockout rugby.
Hometown favourites naturally, the Hurricanes will await their rivals. And the side this week can look to refresh their player’s, not wanting to change anything major. Assistant coach Jason Holland told 1News Sport “”You don’t want to try and come up with something really special in these games,” said Holland.
“I think you want to tweak things, you know small tweaks probably just as good as something magic these days. And that is something that we will be concentrating on.”
Saturday – ACT Brumbies v Sharks. Canberra
The last qualifying match for the semifinals is one that does not have the same excitement factor, as the proceeding games do. Nothing against the Sharks or the home side, but few will assume this match will be an attacking one.
Place each side in a knockout rugby situation, and playing safe is a more wise decision. All out attack could lead to lost possession, so this game could resemble a close battle. And there are some purists who actually prefer that style.
Traveling is always an issue, although the Sharks did win in Australia in Round 11. And their narrowly drawn game against the Crusaders was another result that will be used as motivation. Those encounters, as well as the victory over the Lions in Johannesburg, were bright points. On the other hand, the Brumbies home record is where they may feel their strength lays.
@giostadium has become a Fortress for the @BrumbiesRugby during the 2019 season, having won the past 7 home games straight. Let’s make it eight in a row at GIO – Back your Brumbies this Saturday against the Sharks and Fill the Fortress. pic.twitter.com/TcHKi8AjYE
— GIO Stadium Canberra (@giostadium) June 18, 2019
Both teams will utilize positives from their schedules, to boost confidence.
Of note, being the third highest seed does not provide the Brumbies a natural pathway to a home final. It would rely on two extraordinary outcomes; the Highlanders beating the Crusaders, and the Chiefs defeating the Jaguares. So not impossible, but improbable. Therefore this quarterfinal will be earned by hard graft.
For their fans, knockout rugby can bring huge rewards. Beating the opposition, and ending their hopes and aspirations. It could be a highlight of the season – conversely, losing now can feel even worse than not qualifying. The sense of ‘what if?’ would hang around until next year.
Taking your opportunities, more importantly than in the regulation-season, is what will be remembered.
Making those memories, starring in the end of year highlights package, is what both fans and management want. It’s a positive outcome. And naturally, the ‘winners will be grinners’.
Follow all those outcomes here with Last Word on Rugby, as we look forward to knockout rugby, just as much as you will!
“Main photo credit”
Embed from Getty Images