Rugby
Sam Bruce, Brittany Mitchell and Andy Withers 34d

Super Rugby R18 review:Rebels, Tahs expose Australia's soft underbelly

Eight teams went into the final round of Super Rugby's regular season with the playoffs on their mind. But only three really showed up, while the Sharks produced the ultimate late escape to secure their spot in the postseason.

The Highlanders, Chiefs and Bulls delivered the kind of performances that demanded a quarterfinal berth, however, with resounding wins over the Waratahs, Rebels and Lions respectively.

The quarterfinals, then, are as follows:

Crusaders vs. Highlanders, Christchurch Stadium, Friday 5,35pm [AEST]

Jaguares vs. Chiefs, Estadio Jose Amalfitini, Buenos Aires, Saturday 8.05am [AEST]

Hurricanes vs. Bulls, Westpac Stadium, Wellington, Saturday 5.35pm [AEST]

Brumbies vs. Sharks, GIO Stadium, Canberra, Saturday 8.05pm [AEST]

Read on for some of the key storylines from Round 18.

AUSTRALIAN CONFERENCE

Limp efforts reflect Australia's weak underbelly

After promising so much at the beginning of the year, both the Rebels and Waratahs signed off 2019 in embarrassing style. The Waratahs were always going to do it tough given they were down on personnel but Melbourne had no excuses as they again fell short of a maiden playoff berth.

Although it was never going to be easy, the equation for the Rebels to reach the playoffs was simple: Win. They were instead outplayed, outmanoeuvred and outmuscled to be comprehensively beaten by the Chiefs. For a second year, the Rebels were proven to be Super Rugby pretenders.

Boasting one of the strongest squads in the Australian conference, and kicking off their season with six wins in their opening eight matches, the Rebels looked the real deal and had many pundits believing they'd reach their first finals. But with just two wins from their final nine matches - the last two losses in abysmal fashion - the Rebels had been found out yet again.

Bouncing back from their diabolical 66-0 loss to the Crusaders in Round 17 was always going to be tough, but with the return of Will Genia, Marika Koroibete and in particular, Quade Cooper, to the starting line-up people across Australia were optimistic the Rebels could get the job done. Instead, Cooper proved yet again, that when put under pressure he simply folds.

Cooper gifted the Chiefs two tries with a pair of poorly composed and executed kicks, while he was outplayed by former Rebels No.10 Jack Debreczeni who kept a cool head as he steered his side one step closer to a wildcard place. As everything began to fall down around him, Cooper crumbled and sent two restarts into touch; instead of steadying the Rebels' ship, he sent it further off course.

His teammates were no better. The Rebels' defence was poor with 33 tackles missed; ball-handling was below par and their attack looked confused. Dave Wessels called the team "soft" and questioned if his players were up to Super Rugby standard.

After two huge losses - including their worst to the Chiefs in their short history - you'd have to agree with him. From a World Cup perspective, the Wallabies hopes of many of the Rebels' likely Test aspirants have surely taken a hit, too.

Coming immediately after the Waratahs' spineless performance against the Highlanders, the Rebels' result served as a double-whammy for Australian rugby and meant for a second year only one Australian side would reach the finals.

Forced to sit out five Wallabies, the Waratahs' Invercargill assignment was always going to be tough; but few would have predicted the weak performance they would produce.

The Highlanders found little resistance in defence and owned the gain line; Tevita Li looked unstoppable with the ball, while their forwards demolished the Waratahs' scrum on several occasions. In their heaviest defeat to the Highlanders, Waratahs fans will be happy they won't have to watch them again this year.

Luckily for Australian fans though, there's still one side that have the composure, skill and determination needed to take the competition on when it matters.

With their emphatic win over the Reds on Saturday night, the Brumbies made it six straight victories to round out the regular season and will now go into the quarterfinals riding a strong wave of momentum.

While the Brumbies took their foot off the throttle in the last 20 minutes, their rolling maul again proved to be one of their strongest assets. Their defence, before the late Reds flurry anyway, is also of playoff quality.

"We're pleased with the way we're performing at the moment and the growth in the team has been nice," Christian Leali'ifano said on Saturday night. "So we've just got to continue to keep working hard and hopefully we've got another few weeks more to go."

For the sake of Australian rugby, the Brumbies hopefully have a few more victories to add to that winning run yet.

NEW ZEALAND CONFERENCE

Blues' battles continue as Chiefs, Highlanders shine

A new coach, the return of an All Blacks great and Auckland's Mitre 10 Cup triumph from 2018: This was supposed to be the season when the Blues climbed their way out of the Super Rugby abyss.

But having blown a 24-5 lead to lose 29-24 to the Hurricanes in their final game of the year, the Blues put the exclamation mark on another turgid season to finish at the bottom of the New Zealand conference for a sixth straight year.

With just five wins for the year, the Blues finished in 13th position overall.

Having won four straight games back between rounds 4 and 8, the Blues seemed to have turned the corner. But just one win from their last nine games should have the Blues hierarchy preparing for a sweeping review of its entire rugby operation.

And there can be no excuse for blowing a 19-point lead against a severely under-strength Hurricanes outfit who had opted to rest key personnel for their quarterfinal match-up on Saturday.

When the Highlanders and Chiefs needed bonus-point wins to be a chance of postseason action, both teams went out and played like nothing would deny them another outing for 2019. It is in stark comparison to a Blues franchise that appears to be lacking a killer instinct and the ability to close out tight contests.

Leon MacDonald's side lost six games by five points or less, and had a further draw, often blowing what should have been match-winning leads along the way.

Should MacDonald's position be under scrutiny? It's a question certainly worth asking, particularly when you consider the fact the Blues were least affected by the All Blacks' mandatory rest weeks. Sure, they would have loved to have an injured Sonny Bill Williams on the paddock a little more; but his presence may not have been enough to make them genuine playoff contenders.

The sight of Beauden Barrett in a blue jersey, however, would certainly go a long way to changing that. If it is one thing the Blues have lacked, pretty much ever since Carlos Spencer departed, it is the presence of a commanding fly-half.

Otere Black, Harry Plummer and Stephen Perofeta were all used by MacDonald at some stage this season, but neither man was able to really be the strong guiding hand the Blues require at No. 10.

It is nothing but good news elsewhere in the New Zealand conference however as it has again provided a four-team representation in the playoffs. The ability of the Highlanders and Chiefs to finish the season in resounding fashion, both down key personnel as they had been for much of the year, should serve as a lesson for those involved with the Blues.

The reward for the Highlanders and Chiefs are the toughest quarterfinals of the bunch. The Highlanders travelling to Christchurch on Friday for a second quarterfinal with the Crusaders in three years while the Chiefs have to lug it to Buenos Aires for a date with the in-form Jaguares.

A fortnight ago it seemed as though the New Zealand conference would supply just two teams for the playoffs, but the closing form of the Highlanders and Chiefs is a wider reminder of how New Zealand players are accustomed to performing when under the cosh.

The Blues not so much.

SOUTH AFRICAN CONFERENCE

Two contrary games show the virtue of space

In defeating the Stormers in their do-or-die Super Rugby clash at Newlands on Saturday, the Sharks proved more than anything the value of playing through the siren to the final whistle.

They were never out of the game, having trailed by no more than four points, but, in truth, at the siren, they were in it only by their fingernails as they looked highly unlikely to score the try needed to secure a playoff berth after Jean-Luc du Plessis had kicked a penalty to extend the Stormers' advantage to four points with three minutes to play.

There was no sense that the Stormers relaxed after that penalty, as there was the week before, when they conceded a try against the Sunwolves that cost them a bonus point, almost immediately after claiming it; there is some small mercy for the Stormers and their fans that the loss of that bonus point was rendered moot by the buzz-saw demolition of Australian teams that propelled the Chiefs and the Highlanders into the post season.

But the Stormers were unable to withstand the Sharks, who put together 15 phases in producing the best quality rugby of the game to score the decisive try one minute and change after the siren; it was rugby out of kilter with what had gone before, rugby that would have graced the later Jukskei Derby, or either of the previous fixtures in Invercargill and Hamilton rugby that proved the Sharks can, indeed, play.

Rhyno Smith, who had replaced the concussed Makazola Mapimpi early in the first half, and scored a breakout try for the Sharks soon thereafter -- after the Stormers had gone through 17 phases and seen captain Steven Kitshoff held up over the line -- produced his second decisive action in the game when he drew the tackle of du Plessis and fed the ball outside to Lukhanyo Am; the star Sharks centre cut inside the cover of Seabelo Senatla, who had overrun the best defensive position in his desperation to get across to support Dillyn Leyds, and ran clear to post the match-winning score.

There's a measure of sympathy to be had for the Stormers, whose injury-ravaged campaign ended with another key loss when Jaco Coetzee, their influential rising star of a back-rower, was taken from the field in the first half after a second headknock; there always is a sense of sympathy for the side that loses in such dramatic circumstances after giving their all. But that is mitigated by the absolute lack of quality rugby the Stormers had produced in giving it their all; too often they had sought contact rather than space, and frankly they looked unlikely ever to score a try - even when they were camped on the Sharks' line.

Space is key, but you have to know to look for it, or to recognise it even if you're not actively looking.

So the glory of victory was claimed by the Sharks, who squeezed into the playoffs despite also playing poorly and surely having a squad capable of having built a more compelling case for finals involvement through the season. The Sharks have been under pressure in recent weeks, with lamentable efforts in defeat by the Hurricanes and the Jaguares in their previous two fixtures drawing questions and comment about the direction of the franchise, and that became evident in coach Robert du Preez's response during a testy post-match press conference in Cape Town.

Responding to a question regarding criticism of the team, du Preez labelled the Durban media as "cockroaches"; and the Sharks media representative promptly jumped to cut off follow-up questions, and to the limit the reporters to "valid questions about this game".

So much for winners are grinners, and the losers can please themselves.

Perhaps, however, a sense of siege mentality will boost the Sharks, a team with a far better-than-average touring record in Australia and New Zealand, as they head to Canberra to face the Brumbies in the quarterfinals.

Much as the Sharks entered the playoffs via the backdoor, the Bulls progressed in style having known at kick-off that they were guaranteed post-season football.

The Lions made the best possible start to the fixture at Loftus Versfeld, with Aphiwe Dyantyi putting Hacjivah Dayimani clear to score a spectacular try, but the hosts responded superbly with four tries in 20 minutes, and the only question pertaining to the fixture thereafter was whether the visitors could claim a losing bonus point that would see them progress at the expense of the Highlanders.

The Lions, South African conference winners and losing finalists for the past three seasons, got themselves into that position when Cyle Brink crossed approaching the three-quarter mark of the match, but there would be no third South African team in the playoffs.

The Bulls put their Gauteng rivals to the sword with three more tries in the final 20 minutes that ensured a 21-point margin. Their skills and clinically ruthless efficiency in doing so, finding and exploiting space that sometimes wasn't even there to be found, gives reasonable hope that they will be not be in Wellington this next just to make up the numbers; their performance and their skills also give hope to the Sharks, who have quality players, who showed in the final minutes at Newlands that they can also create and exploit space.

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