Justin Marshall is a former All Blacks halfback and current columnist for the New Zealand Herald

Justin Marshall: Odds favour title going to NZ franchise

Melani Nanai of the Blues is tackled by Reece Robinson of the Waratahs during the round 17 Super Rugby match between the Blues and the Waratahs at Eden Park. Photo / Getty Images
Melani Nanai of the Blues is tackled by Reece Robinson of the Waratahs during the round 17 Super Rugby match between the Blues and the Waratahs at Eden Park. Photo / Getty Images

An amazing last Super Rugby round showed once again the quality of the New Zealand teams.

The Blues began it by knocking over the Waratahs and for me there was little surprise in the result because the Australian teams have shown little to suggest they are title contenders. If you're looking at it objectively, a New Zealand team is likely to be crowned champion this year, with the Lions very much an outside chance.

Two of the teams most definitely in the running are the Highlanders and Chiefs, who went at it in one of the best games of Super Rugby.

Chiefs coach Dave Rennie said it wasn't his side's best performance, but they weren't allowed to play by a very good Highlanders side who have now won six on the bounce against them.

The game had everything and if you're another Super Rugby team watching the tempo it was played at, it would have been frightening.

Thirty-two minutes into the game there was a short stoppage and you could see both sets of players with their hands on heads or doubled over, breathing hard. It was close to test match intensity and of course there were plenty of All Blacks involved.

It was a great result for the Highlanders, who now go to Canberra for their quarter-final against the Brumbies where they should start favourites. They are increasingly impressive to watch. They've had more than their fair share of injuries but have guys like Matt Faddes at centre and James Lentjes at openside flanker and they don't lose anything.

Luke Whitelock gets an opportunity at No8 and keeps All Black Liam Squire on the bench. There is incredible talent in the two Smiths and Lima Sopoaga, who was outstanding in the final 20 minutes and good in general against fellow All Black Aaron Cruden. They have Patrick Osborne, Waisake Naholo, Malakai Fekitoa, plus workaholics such as Alex Ainley and Elliot Dixon in the pack.

Now the Chiefs are travelling to South Africa to face the Stormers but they are too good to let it slip in Cape Town.

I was impressed with second-five Anton Lienert-Brown, but the loss of Charlie Ngatai takes something away from them. With him, they have a better balance of attack in combination with Damian McKenzie and James Lowe.

The Hurricanes never looked in danger of being dominated by the Crusaders, despite a reshuffled backline. Their All Blacks TJ Perenara and Beauden Barrett stepped up and Cory Jane and James Marshall were composed at the back. Dane Coles' captaincy was outstanding. They obviously entered the game with an attacking mindset - they wanted to put the Crusaders under pressure and the home side couldn't respond.

A lot of people have been critical of the conference system, but it has dished up some drama and it's probably been fair. The Lions have been consistently good and they top the heap in South Africa.

The most hard done by team are probably the Highlanders, who finished second in the New Zealand conference and deserve better than to travel for a quarter-final and that's due to a disappointing and below-par Australian conference.

2016 Super Rugby quarter-final draw
Fri at 8pm: Brumbies [4] v Highlanders [5] at GIO Stadium, Canberra
Sat at 7.35pm: Hurricanes [1] v Sharks [8] at Westpac Stadium, Wellington
Sun at 2.30am: Lions [2] v Crusaders [7] at Ellis Park, Johannesburg
Sun at 5am: Stormers [3] v Chiefs [6] at Newlands, Cape Town
* Regular season finish in brackets

- NZ Herald

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Justin Marshall is a former All Blacks halfback and current columnist for the New Zealand Herald

Justin Marshall played 81 test matches for the All Blacks, including four as captain. The halfback made his debut in 1995 against France and ended his career 10 years later with a series sweep over the British and Irish Lions. He won five Super Rugby titles with the Crusaders, playing 105 games for the franchise. He commentates for Sky Television.

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