Hurricanes clinch 1st place in Super Rugby after Lions lose
When Argentina's Jaguares beat the Johannesburg-based Lions 34-22 in the final match of Super Rugby's regular season Saturday, the last piece of a complex playoffs picture — obscured until the last minute — neatly clicked into place.
The 17th and final round of a season which began five months ago saw almost unprecedented upheaval before the match in Buenos Aires, in which the Jaguares claimed the fourth win of their debut season, made clear who will play who in next weekend's playoffs.
The Lions' gamble in fielding an under-strength side to save their top players for the playoffs proved a rash one as they were knocked out of first place, awarding that position against all odds to the Wellington-based Hurricanes.
Though they failed to gain even a bonus point which would have kept them in first place, they retained home advantage in next weekend's quarterfinals, along with compatriots the Stormers, the Hurricanes in New Zealand and the ACT Brumbies in Australia.
After starting the final round in fourth place in New Zealand and ranked seventh on the overall table the Hurricanes, beaten finalists last year, soared to first place to grab top-seeding and home advantage throughout the playoffs.
They did so with a record 35-10 win over the Crusaders in Christchurch and faced the prospect of an immediate rematch with the Crusaders in the quarterfinals before the Lions loss to the Jaguares changed the equation.
The Hurricanes will now host the Durban-based Sharks, the eighth seeds, in a home quarterfinal next Saturday. The Lions, finishing in second place, will now face seven-time champions the Crusaders at Ellis Park in a playoff which is immeasurably tougher than the one, against the Sharks, which they surrendered when they fell out of first place.
The ACT Brumbies, who clinched first place in Australia with a 24-10 over the Perth-based Western Force on Saturday, will meet defending champions the Highlanders and the Cape Town-based Stormers will host the Chiefs, who gave up first in New Zealand during the weekend's turbulent round.
The Lions and Chiefs were the greatest losers of a round which contained severe changes of fortune. Both conceded privileged positions and earned immeasurably more difficult playoffs tasks than they might have been facing.
Coach Johann Ackermann has transformed the Lions this season but his tactical decision to spare his top players for the playoffs and to send a weakened team to Buenos Aires misfired.
The Lions led the Jaguares at halftime but were overwhelmed in the second spell. Still, 12 points down and with time up on the clock they continued to attack and a late try would have been enough to give them a bonus point and save first place. That was the nature of a round in which almost everything was in flux until the final whistle ended the regular season.
"The Crusaders are a great team, they've proved it in the past," said Lions captain Ross Cronje. "We have to come out hungry next week and play the game we know we can play."
The Stormers, who had already secured the other home playoff in South Africa, finished their regular season with a 52-24 win over another of the season's newcomers, the Port Elizabeth-based Kings. That left them with a quarterfinal at their Newlands based next weekend against the Hamilton-based Chiefs whose 25-15 loss to the Highlanders dropped them from first to third place in the New Zealand conference.
The Highlanders' sixth straight win over the Chiefs moved the defending champions into second place on the conference table, shuffling the Chiefs to third and the Crusaders to fourth.
The Durban-based Sharks secured their playoff place as the South African wild card with a 40-29 win over Japan's Sunwolves who finished their debut season in last place and with only one win. In total the three newcomers to the competition this season — the Jaguares, Sunwolves and Kings — won only six matches in total and finished in 14th, 17th and 18th places.