Patrick McKendry is a rugby writer for the Herald.

Rugby: Kiwi teams put Aussies to shame

The Crusaders' thrashing of the Rebels emphasised the gulf in class between Kiwi and Aussie teams. Photo / Getty
The Crusaders' thrashing of the Rebels emphasised the gulf in class between Kiwi and Aussie teams. Photo / Getty

Four New Zealand teams will contest the Super Rugby playoffs, the Highlanders' victory over the Jaguares in Buenos Aires today sealing a spectacular weekend for the Kiwi outfits and a miserable one for the Australians.

The Chiefs, Crusaders, Highlanders and Hurricanes have all qualified, and attention will quickly turn to an intriguing final round which will confirm the final standings and the first week of the playoffs.

The Johannesburg-based Lions, standing defiantly on top of the table and with a trip to Buenos Aires to play the inconsistent Jaguares to come, appear favourites to stay there, but the tight nature of the New Zealand conference, and the fact that the Highlanders host the Chiefs and Crusaders host the Hurricanes in the final round, means a further reshuffle is possible.

For example, it's not out of the question that the seventh-placed Hurricanes could finish on top of the table should they put the Crusaders to the sword at AMI Stadium on Saturday.

The Blues, out of the playoffs but still a significant player in terms of the make-up of the finals series, thrashed the Brumbies 40-15 at Eden Park to kick things off, but, rather than capitalise, the Waratahs' 28-17 defeat at the hands of the Hurricanes will almost certainly see them fade from contention.

It is likely that only one Australian conference team will make the final eight, and with the Brumbies and Waratahs tied on 39 points, and the former hosting the troubled Force next weekend while the Sydney-siders travel to Auckland to play the Blues, it appears the men from Canberra are in the box seat.

The Stormers, who have not had to play a New Zealand team this season, is the other South African team confirmed in the playoffs, with the Sharks, who host the woeful Sunwolves, a possibility for the eighth and final place.

The Crusaders bounced back from their defeat to the Chiefs in Suva to embarrass the injury-hit Rebels 85-26 in Christchurch, a humiliation which threatened to break their record 96-19 victory over the Waratahs in 2002. The Reds were similarly humbled 50-5 by the Chiefs in Brisbane in a weekend which perfectly illustrated the gap between the New Zealand conference and the rest of the competition.

All five of the New Zealand teams showed an ability to make decisions under pressure and full array of skills which were on a different level to the opposition. In putting six tries past a tired-looking Brumbies, who contained half a dozen Wallabies but few attacking ideas, the Blues finally fulfilled their potential after pushing the Crusaders and Hurricanes close.

The Chiefs blew the Reds away despite the absence of key forward Brodie Retallick, rested for bigger matches to come, and the Crusaders did likewise without All Blacks skipper Kieran Read, the Rebels defending as poorly as any Super Rugby team in recent history.

Chris Boyd's Hurricanes were in the closest contest of the Kiwi teams, but pulled away from the Waratahs in Sydney with relative ease in the second half, the home side's lineout disintegrating along with their composure.

At Estadio Jose Amalfitani, the Highlanders backed up their big victory over the Kings in Port Elizabeth with a similarly comprehensive win over the Jaguares, who also had big lineout problems despite being effectively a Pumas test team in disguise.

Fullback Ben Smith was a constant threat on the counter after being rested last weekend, with second-five Rob Thompson also having a match to remember.

The match, which finished in a 34-8 victory for Jamie Joseph's men, was also memorable for the unique response from television match official Santiago Borsani who was asked to rule on a possible Patrick Osborne try by referee Angus Gardner in the final minutes.

Osborne clearly put a foot on the touchline when diving into the corner, but Borsani told Gardner: "You may award the try."

Gardner, who had a good game in often trying conditions and was watching the replay on a big screen, said: "Hold on Santiago, let's look at that again."

The try was not awarded.

Final round:
Friday: Blues v Waratahs, Eden Park
Reds v Rebels, Suncorp Stadium
Saturday: Sharks v Sunwolves, Kings Park
Crusaders v Hurricanes, AMI Stadium
Highlanders v Chiefs, Forsyth Barr Stadium
Brumbies v Force, GIO Stadium
Sunday: Stormers v Kings, Newlands
Cheetahs v Bulls, Toyota Stadium
Jaguares v Lions, Estadio Jose Amalfitani

- NZ Herald

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