After 19 rounds of rip-roaring Super Rugby action, we are down to six final contenders.
The Waratahs and Crusaders are assured a home semi-final having finished first and second respectively, while the Sharks, Brumbies, Chiefs and Highlanders are set to do battle for the final two spots in the Super Rugby semis.
Ahead of the eagerly-anticipated knockout stages, Sky Sports takes a look at their season so far and which players are likely to influence the outcome of this year’s competition.
Heading into the knockout stages, the Waratahs are without a doubt the in-form side and most worthy of their favourites tag after ending the regular season at the Super Rugby summit. Although, topping the table only tells half the story. Michael Cheika’s ‘Tahs have produced some of the most sublime rugby in the southern hemisphere this year, with backs Israel Folau, Bernard Foley and Kurtley Beale heading the Super Rugby attacking stats.
Folau has gained worldwide acclaim in the green and gold of Australia, but his performances for the Waratahs have been equally as scintillating. Unrivalled under the high ball, Folau possess a blistering turn of pace which has seen him top the Super Rugby try-scoring charts with 12 five-pointers to his name, while the trusty boot of Foley has seen him claim the top points scorer title.
The pair have contributed over half of the Waratahs’ 481 points to date, but their talent is not restricted to the backs department. Michael Hooper, Will Skelton, Dave Dennis and Jacques Potgieter have consistently established a solid working platform, offering freedom and plenty of set-piece opportunities for the backline.
Waratahs are the box office side of this year’s competition and their exhilarating brand of rugby has seen them claim no less than nine try-scoring bonus points in 16 matches, a feat nothing short of spectacular. The Sydney side brought the curtain down in the regular season with a run of seven straight successes, leaving them seven points clear of the chasing pack, and if anyone looks like dethroning the Chiefs it would be the Waratahs.
"I knew that when the boys were going to click and get it all together that we would be unstoppable." - Jacques Potgieter
Dangerman: Israel Folau
Changes games in a split second, one of the best full-backs in world rugby and consistently shows his class on the domestic stage.
Critics were queuing round the block to lambast the dismal nature of the Crusaders’ start to the season. Those same critics are now championing all that Todd Blackadder’s men are doing after they topped the New Zealand conference and booked a home semi-final. A second-place finish appeared to be bordering on the impossible for the seven-time champions after a slovenly start to their campaign, yet now they stand credible contenders for the crown.
Three losses in their opening five outings left the Crusaders open to scrutiny, although an April tour of South Africa appeared to change all of that. Back to back victories against Lions and the Cheetahs away from home was the catalyst for revival and since their return the Crusaders have lost just twice, becoming one of the most potent sides in Super Rugby.
Nine Nemani Nadolo tries combined with 178 points via the boot of Colin Slade have gone a long way to ensuring the Crusaders made the knockout stages, while some domineering performances up front from try-scoring forward Matt Todd ensured the Christchurch team earned a bye to the semi-finals.
Crusaders bowed out with nine wins from the last 11 outings and with a weekend off to recuperate and the promise of the effervescent Richie McCaw returning for a semi-final in front of the Christchurch faithful, it is difficult to see anyone stopping the Crusaders from making their 11th Super Rugby final.
"The guys have played a lot of football and how we manage this week is going to be very important. Some guys are going to freshen-up and we are going to focus on some areas of our game we need to improve on." - Todd Blackadder
Dangerman: Matt Todd
A potent force in both defence and attack, ferocious in contact and lethal in the loose.
If the Waratahs are show-stopping, Jake White’s Sharks are exactly the opposite and their no-frills approach has led to plenty of criticism. Yet nobody can dispute the fact that they boast the finest defensive record in Super Rugby, conceding only 22 in their 16 outings. A tight affair can always be expected with the Sharks in town, with the Durban-based franchise losing just five times this term but claiming a losing bonus point on four of those occasions.
Only twice has their Kings Park fortress been invaded this season, unfortunately for them, one of those instances came when Qualifying Final opponents Highlanders were in town. Incidentally, the very same fixture was their only fruitless outing of the campaign as the Highlanders chalked up a 34-18 bonus-point win, with the Sharks only response coming in the form of six Tim Swiel penalties.
While stoic in defence, the Sharks are less potent in attack, scoring just 29 tries all season and only the rock-bottom Melbourne Rebels have claimed less try-scoring bonus points. Six of their tries have come courtesy of livewire scrum-half Cobus Reinach and much will depend on his axis partnership with Frans Steyn while the welcome return of Pat Lambie after a long injury lay-off offers options from the bench.
All that considered, the Sharks did finish the regular season with a fine flourish, inflicting a 34-10 defeat on the Stormers – their heaviest Newlands reverse of the campaign. After conceding the opening try of the match, the Sharks hit back through Paul Jordaan on 38 minutes, before late tries from Sibusiso Sithole and Stefan Ungerer gave them added momentum heading into the knockout stages.
“Ideally we would have liked a week off and automatically qualify for a home semi – that would have been first prize – but second prize is that we get to play this week with a bit of momentum going into the play-offs.” - Jake White
Dangerman: Francois Steyn
Proven his versatility by deputising for Pat Lambie at fly-half and whether posted in the axis or at centre, the Springbok is a crucial cog if they Sharks are to prevail.
Inconsistency has plagued the Brumbies’ campaign this year and their penchant for attacking flair has too often left them exposed and vulnerable to attack. Since winning seven of their opening eight matches, last year’s finalists have been unable to string together back-to-back successes, losing four of their last seven matches.
While the Crusaders were revitalised by touring South Africa, defeats to the Cheetahs and the Bulls in consecutive weekends was the beginning of the Brumbies’ slide. A 39-8 reverse at the hands of the Waratahs in Sydney caused headaches outgoing director of rugby Laurie Fisher, who will be desperate to see his side discover consistency and extend their season further.
In the absence of free-scoring winger Robbie Coleman, centre Matt Toomua has taken centre-stage for the Brumbies, scoring five tries in three matches for the Canberra side. Encouragingly for Fisher, the Brumbies bowed out of the regular season on a high – smashing Western Force 47-25 with a hat-trick from Toomua – while a return for Coleman adds a dynamic attacking edge.
When it comes to crossing the whitewash the Brumbies are not lacking, with 49 tries to their name, a record only the rampant Waratahs can better. Claiming second spot in the try-scoring chart has come at cost for the Brumbies however, with their points difference ending just 34 into the black. If the Brumbies are going to end the Chiefs’ period of Super Rugby dominance they must shore up their set-piece frailties and discover the consistency they have so dearly lacked of late.
“I thought they were outstanding in pretty much everything they did. I’ll be looking to build on that momentum this week. I want to be able to add to that performance." - Robbie Coleman
Dangerman: Matt Toomua
The form man heading into the Super Rugby knockouts, buoyant with confidence and will seize any opportunity offered up.
It’s fair to say it has hardly been a breeze for the back-to-back champions in 2014, who headed into the final round of regular season action knowing only victory against the Blues would seal a place in the knockout stages. Neither driving rain nor a battling Blues side – themselves scrapping for a top-six finish - could stop a resilient Chiefs side, marked by commitment and steely-eyed determination.
Few embody that authoritative Chiefs spirit more so than co-captain Aaron Cruden, who guided the Waikato-based franchise to a hard-fought 11-8 victory at Eden Park - only the Blues’ second loss of the season at their Auckland fortress. Does the Chiefs’ protracted route to the playoffs diminish their chances of emulating the Crusaders and completing a hat-trick?
Not in the slightest. Three successive defeats either side of the international break left their hopes hanging in the balance but, as ever, the Chiefs drew strength and guts to dig in and wrestle their way into the playoffs.
By their own admission, it has been far from vintage for the Chiefs, who have suffered heavy defeats at the hands of New Zealand conference rivals Hurricanes and table-toppers Waratahs. All that will be brushed aside however as Dave Rennie’s men head to Canberra for a showdown with the Brumbies for a place in the final four; and if any team know how to win when the stakes are high, it is the Chiefs.
"There's been a lot of doubters but in our circle we've kept the faith and the belief and it's paid off." - Aaron Cruden
Dangerman: Aaron Cruden
Cheeky, chirpy and ready to cut defences apart at the drop of a hat, offer up space and he will make you pay.
In the end, the Highlanders have limped into the Super Rugby knockout stages, with just one win in their final five regular season outings. Not only has their form dipped in the latter stages of the season, Jamie Joseph’s side have seldom shown signs of promising with heavy defeats at the hands of semi-finalists Waratahs and Crusaders in the closing weeks.
Their recent plight made a 29-25 success against New Zealand conference rivals the Chiefs look a mere flash in the pan as they ended the season with a whimper. Cheika’s table-topping Waratahs ran in six tries in a 44-16 demolition of the Highlanders before the Crusaders clinched second spot with a 34-8 bonus-point win over the Otago-based franchise.
A failure to show up against the two semi-finalists offers little hope of progress for the Highlanders, though, their previous meeting with Qualifying Final opponents Sharks will be a source of strength for Joseph. The Highlanders were riding the crest of a wave back in April and chalked up a 34-18 bonus-point win at Kings Park, where they will head on Saturday in a bid to keep their season alive.
It is not all misery for the Highlanders however. Joseph and his coaching staff have rightly earned acclaim this term having transformed their sporadic tendencies - which saw them finish 14th last term - into a first top-six finish in eight years. Much of that success must be credited to the ingenuity of a flashy backline comprising All Black trio Ben Smith, Malakai Fekitoa and Aaron Smith.
"We were simply outplayed by the Waratahs. It definitely hurts. But we're in the playoffs and that's a great achievement for us." - Nasi Manu
Dangerman: Ben Smith
On his day the All Blacks flyer is majestic, incisive and simply unstoppable.