The knockout stages of 2017 Super rugby begin this weekend with the four quarter-finals. Four conference winners host four wildcards, seeded by group stage finishing positions.
The Lions moved ahead of the Crusaders and into top seed on the overall standings following a 27-10 victory over the Sharks in Johannesburg last weekend as the Crusaders lost their season long unbeaten record in defeat to the Hurricanes. The Lions will now face the Sharks at home in the quarter-finals and hold home advantage for the playoffs should they advance all the way to the final.
The second placed Crusaders will host the Highlanders on Saturday while the Chiefs make the trip to Cape Town to play the Stormers. In the other quarter-final the Hurricanes head to Canberra to play the Brumbies.
The Chiefs look to have the toughest path to the final which could potentially mean two trips to South Africa. Should the Chiefs beat the Stormers this week they will then have to travel to back New Zealand to face the winner of the Crusaders and the Highlanders clash in the semi-final.
The other half of the draw sees the winners of the Lions/Sharks play the winners of the Brumbies/Hurricanes in the semi finals.
Super Rugby quarter-finals (times BST, all prices Bet365)
4 (seed)-Brumbies v 5 (seed)-Hurricanes, Canberra, 10.45am
The Brumbies enter the play offs after successive defeats away to the Reds and the Chiefs but those two losses came since the international break and the Brumbies had already had this home play off berth sealed courtesy of topping the Australian Conference. They made wholesale changes to their line up for last week’s trip to Hamilton and they didn’t perform badly in the circumstances, however a record of 6 wins and 9 defeats in the regular season is still inferior to the Blues who finished bottom of the New Zealand Conference. The Brumbies have lost all 5 of their matches against New Zealand opposition this season including a heavy defeat away to the Hurricanes (56-21) in Round 9.
The Hurricanes came through the regular season with 12 wins and 3 defeats to finish as runners up to the Crusaders in New Zealand. Last week they became the first team to beat the Crusaders in 2017.Only the Crusaders, in their first meeting and the Chiefs (twice) beat the Hurricanes so far this season.
In 2016 the Hurricanes topped the overall standings at the end of the round robin stage on their route to being crowned Super Rugby Champions.
The point line here has been set at Brumbies +12 at 10/11. The Hurricanes should be far superior, and good enough to cover -12 here even away from home.
2-Crusaders v 7-Highlanders, Christchurch, 8.35am
The Crusaders and Highlanders have met three times previously in Super Rugby playoffs with the Crusaders winning all three encounters. However they haven’t clashed in the post season since the 2002 semifinals. They met twice during this season. The Crusaders won 30-27 in Dunedin and 25-22 in Christchurch.
The Crusaders were unbeaten in the regular season until last weekend’s loss 31-22 away to the Hurricanes in Wellington, which meant they lost the number one seeding position. This is therefore a tougher quarter final for the Crusaders than it might have been, and is one of the consequences of the competition format that guaranteed each conference winner a home quarter final and such is the strength of the New Zealand conference that the Crusaders have to host the Highlanders with 11 wins from 15 games this season, only good enough to be the fourth best record amongst the New Zealand sides.
The market is expecting this to be quite close, the Crusaders are priced up at -5 10/11.This might reflect that the Highlanders have a strong defence, only conceding 308 points in their 15 group games,75 fewer than the Crusaders. I have a very slight preference for Highlanders +5, but no more than that.
1-Lions v 8-Sharks, Johannesburg, 1.30pm
The Lions moved ahead of the Crusaders and into top seed on the overall standings following a 27-10 victory over the Sharks in Johannesburg last weekend. This completed a stunning regular season for the Lions who won 14 gamers out 15 (helped by being in the Africa Conference that didn’t have to play the New Zealand sides) with a positive point difference of 322.
In the same conference as the Lions the Sharks won 9, lost 5 and drew 1 of their 15 games scoring 200 points fewer than the Lions and as above lost to the Lions at home by 17 points last weekend
Whilst we might expect this to be closer in a one off knock out game the available points spread of the Lions -15 at 10/11 looks very tempting.
3-Stormers v 6-Chiefs, Cape Town, 4pm
This is slated to be the closest of the four quarter finals, in part because the Chiefs have already travelled to Cape Town this season where they lost 34-26 to the Stormers.
The Stormers secured the third seed in the play offs by winning Africa Conference 1 with ten wins and five losses in a group in which the next strongest side recorded four wins across the season. They enter the quarter finals having beaten the Bulls 41-33 away fro home last weekend
The Chiefs are the sixth seed, and the third best record of the five New Zealand franchises with 12 wins 2 losses and a draw. They finished the regular season with a 28-10 win at home to the Brumbies.
This should be very tight and interestingly the home side are under-dogs at 11/8 outright (Chiefs 8/13) and +3 10/11 on the handicap
I like backing the Stormers outright at home here.