Nine talking points from Super Rugby and a weekend form team.
Sometimes the world is fair
Given Super Rugby's weird format which guarantees a top three spot to the New Zealand, Australia and South Africa-Argentina conference winners, the Chiefs and Highlanders had to play their way into the top eight, and did so. Despite that, the sooner Super Rugby returns to round robin play, so a conference as weak as Australia's isn't gifted a playoff place, the better.
If I really knew how these games would finish, I'd be sending this column from my yacht in the Bahamas
At the huge risk of looking really stupid when the smoke of next weekend's quarter-finals clears, here's who I think will advance: The Crusaders will tip over the Highlanders, the Canes will win well against the Bulls, the Chiefs will beat the Jaguares, and the Brumbies will eliminate the Sharks in Canberra, although who cares either way on that last one?
Remember that bear that ripped you to shreds in Christchurch? He got a cheap fare to Melbourne
There were times during the season when the Melbourne Rebels looked like the real thing. Then they got stomped 66-0 by the Crusaders, and the humiliation was completed on Friday night when the Rebels lost 59-8 to the Chiefs in front of their own crowd. Confidence matters so much in sport, and by halftime in Melbourne, a forensic expert couldn't have found a trace of it in the Rebels' DNA. Even a good test player such as Dane Haylett-Petty was made to look ordinary.
In Motumaoho, a dairy farmer is smiling
Has any team timed a late run better than the Chiefs? Players such as Jack Debreczeni, who was born in Auckland but grew up in Australia, have suddenly emerged playing with finesse and confidence, and if the 40-17 upset of the Crusaders in Suva wasn't enough to say they're back, that smackdown of the Rebels certainly was. Coach Colin Cooper, as humble a man as ever ran a training session, said they'd rather play the Crusaders in Christchurch in a quarter-final than go to Buenos Aires. They're off to Argentina anyway, but as much as the Jaguares have improved, it's their misfortune to be facing the Chiefs, the biggest movers of recent weeks.
Kicking to the Highlanders is like putting mince on your hand and expecting a lion to just lick it off
Invercargill got a ripper of a display from the Highlanders in their 49-12 win over the Folau-less Waratahs. To say some of the Tahs kicking was as dumb as a pet rock would be unkind to minerals. Waisake Naholo made them suffer every time they hopefully lobbed the ball downfield, as Adam Ashley-Cooper, a tough, skilled defender, found when he ended up smack on his backside as the All Blacks wing scored in the 23rd minute.
How slow-witted were the Sydneysiders? There was an obvious lesson in the first six minutes, when Highlanders fullback Josh McKay fielded a weak kick and streaked in for a great try. The dumb bunnies had to be told at halftime to stop the aimless punting. They did, and after being 42-7 down at halftime, leaked only seven points in the second half.
The beard is magnificent and it's got the player it deserves
With the return of an in-form Dane Coles, Liam Coltman may be edging out to the fringe of World Cup selection. But the big hairy hooker from Taranaki is playing out of his skin, with a workrate that should at least keep him on the selectors' radar.
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Woke up this mornin' and it was like the same ole blues
Just after the final whistle in Wellington, when the Hurricanes had clawed back to a 29-24 win over the Blues, I got a phone call from a lovely guy who coaches an under-8 team in Auckland. He wasn't angry, just sad. "What's going on in their heads?" he lamented. It's a fair question.
There were signs of improvement by the Blues this year (I know, I know, but honestly, check the results, they may still be losing but without getting thrashed any more), but they were still last in the New Zealand conference and are still without an away win against a Kiwi team in five years. Worst of all, they have an apparent genius for snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. No wonder we're seeing Leon McDonald holding his head in his hands in the coaches' box.
Yet more proof props can do anything
Please take a bow for all men with cauliflower ears, tighthead props, Alex Fidow for the Canes and Angus Ta'avao for the Chiefs. Fidow weighs 137kg, and off balance and harassed by desperate Blues defenders, he still slipped a perfect pass to Peter Umaga-Jensen for the 63rd-minute try that tied the game in Wellington. Ta'avao, a dainty 124kg, continued the great open-field form he showed in Suva a fortnight ago by racing up beside the lightning quick Brad Weber in Melbourne to take a pass and then send Sam Cane over for the 12th-minute try that started the Chiefs points deluge.
Let's not get cocky but are the stars aligning?
Everywhere you looked, All Blacks who had been sidelined, in most cases for months, were back in harness: Liam Squire champing at the bit for 48 minutes in Invercargill, Dane Coles looking dynamic for 52 minutes in Wellington, Brodie Retallick working hard for 59 minutes in Melbourne and Sonny Bill Williams gritting out the full 80 minutes in Wellington. These are players whose abilities the All Blacks selectors know as well as their credit card Pin numbers, and that means barring further injury, look for their names in the squad for Japan.
Finally, a form team from the weekend (and I do know Tyler Ardron can't play for the All Blacks, but gee, he played so well, let's change the rules for one week).
Fullback: Melani Nanai (Blues).
Right wing: Waisake Naholo (Highlanders).
Centre: Anton Lienert-Brown (Chiefs).
Left wing: Tevita Li (Highlanders).
Second-five: Danny Toala (Hurricanes).
First-five: Josh Ioane (Highlanders).
Halfback: Brad Weber (Chiefs).
No 8: Akira Ioane (Blues).
Flanker: Sam Cane (Chiefs).
Flanker: Liam Squire (Highlanders)
Lock: Tyler Ardron (Chiefs).
Lock: Jackson Hemopo (Highlanders).
Tighthead prop: Angus Ta'avao (Chiefs).
Hooker: Liam Coltman (Highlanders).
Loosehead prop: Atu Moli (Chiefs).
Reserves: Solomon Alaimalo (Chiefs), Jack Debreczeni (Chiefs), TJ Perenara (Hurricanes), Liam Squire (Highlanders), Brodie Retallick (Chiefs), Tyrel Lomax (Highlanders), Dane Coles (Hurricanes), Fraser Armstrong (Hurricanes).