After a convoluted conference system, 17 rounds, 135 games and a chasm in quality between the New Zealand sides and many of the also-rans, the same old protagonists have emerged.
The Lions have topped the Super Rugby table and will likely reach the semifinals, almost certainly against the Hurricanes, without having faced one Kiwi team, a glaring anomaly.
After the Crusaders' hiccup in Wellington, the Lions knew exactly what was required against the Sharks, and their 27-10 win was sufficient.
It was a far cry from their ill-fated trip to Buenos Aires in the final round of 2016, when they opted to select a below-strength team for the clash with the Jaguares. The 34-22 loss cost them home final advantage. They should be too strong at the site of the monolithic Ellis Park for the rematch with the Durbanites.
This weekend's viewing, however, opens, as it did in 2016, with a quarter-final in Canberra. While the Highlanders laboured to a 15-9 win last year, do not expect the Hurricanes to struggle this time. There was much to like about their 31-22 victory over the Crusaders on Saturday, which not only halted the visitors' 14-0 win streak, but also showed they can cope with adversity after Beauden Barrett and Vince Aso were late withdrawals.
That duo and season skipper Dane Coles should all be fit, though one would imagine the hooker will be introduced off the bench. Men such as Vaea Fifita are firing at just the right time for the defending champions, who stayed at home through the 2016 playoffs, and now look like they will have to win a Johannesburg semifinal to repeat. They are up to it.
The Brumbies showed little of their hand other than some stiff defence and tigerish breakdown work in their 28-10 loss to the Chiefs in Hamilton. As in 2016, they are the Australian Conference winners, despite a mediocre 6-9 record (they were 10-5 last season). Maybe they will look for some magic from their Kiwi pivot Wharenui Hawera. Unlikely.
It is not often the Crusaders need to work on their discipline, but they were caned 16-7 in the penalty count in Wellington, and have two consecutive defeats to fret on. All their big guns will be back but they meet the in-form Highlanders, for whom the Smiths will be back. The southerners were often sizzling on attack in the 40-17 win over the Reds and troubled their southern rivals on June 2, when the Crusaders relied on a Mitch Hunt drop goal to save their blushes.
The Chiefs welcome back their “big three” and will need them to add steel to Damian McKenzie's outlandish bag of tricks. They did the bare minimum to beat the undermanned Brumbies, but will need more polish to take care of the Stormers, the sole South African side to win against Kiwi teams in 2017 (the Chiefs and Blues). It will not be a 60-21 blowout to the Chiefs, as it was in their 2016 quarter-final.
So there we have it. We can guess, with no certainty, that the semifinals will see the Lions hosting the Hurricanes and the Crusaders home to the Chiefs.
sThen the Crusaders could claim their eighth title in the August 5 final against the Hurricanes.
- New Zealand Herald