Against expectations, the Reds leap-frogged fellow Australians the Brumbies to make the Semi-finals, along with the Stormers, the Chiefs, the Crusaders, the Bulls and the Sharks.
The Reds play the Sharks at home in Brisbane on Saturday July 22, despite having less competition points than the other five finalists.
SANZAR boss Greg Peters defended the conference system, which was introduced this year to bolster television ratings across the three nations contesting SuperRugby.
The leading team from each conference—or country—goes through to the finals, followed by the highest point-scores from the remaining teams.
Critics in New Zealand and South Africa say they are disadvantaged by the system—and by a relatively weak Australian conference.
Peters said the system guaranteed there would be a final in each of the contesting countries. “The outcome which has occurred could happen to any one of the countries,” he said.
That aside, the Reds will be hamstrung by the suspension of star flyhalf Quade Cooper for a high tackle on Wallaby team-mate, Waratah flyhalf Berrick Barnes, last Saturday, when the Reds beat the Waratahs 32-16.
To make the finals, the Brumbies needed a solitary bonus point from their home match with the Auckland Blues, who languish near the bottom of the table. They failed, losing 16-30.
Despite this, the Brumbies have exceeded expectations this year. Captain Ben Mowen said the side would learn from the costly loss.
Sixteen Brumbies players received their first Super cap this year. Another five were in their first year of employment, in any field.
“We will funnel that disappointment into an extremely hard pre-season and make sure we are a tougher side next season,” Mowen said.
Another young side, the Wellington Hurricanes, knocked the competition leader, the Chiefs, into second place with a 28-25 home victory.
The Hurricanes won the match well after full-time by scoring a controversial try.
Despite the loss, the Chief are rewarded with a bye this weekend along with the table-topping Stormers from Cape Town.
Surprisingly, the Stormers were almost toppled at home by the inconsistent Melbourne Rebels, winning the close match 26-21.
Though they lead the table going into the finals, the Stormers have the weakest attack of the six teams. Their reliable flyhalf Peter Grant kept them in the game against the Rebels, kicking two conversions and four penalty goals.
The Crusaders beat the equally inconsistent Force 38-24 at home in Christchurch. Coach Todd Blackadder replaced stars Dan Carter and Ritchie McCaw, which saw the Force mount a fight-back, scoring three late tries.
Retiring lock Nathan Sharpe captained the Force in the final game of his record 162-game Super career. Sharpe was pleased that his team-mates showed such resolve in his final match.
“It’s fantastic to come here and have my last game against what I’ve considered the hardest opposition across my whole career,” he said.
Sharpe is available for the inaugural Rugby Championship, which begins next month.
The Rugby Championship replaces the Tri-Nations and includes Argentina.
On Saturday, the Crusaders are at home to the Bulls, who beat the Lions 37-20. Despite the score, the lowly Lions played better than expected and were level at 20-20 at half-time. The Lions have not won in Pretoria for a decade.
The win may disadvantage the Bulls, though. It places them ahead of the Sharks, meaning they will play the Crusaders rather than the easier option of playing the Reds.
The Sharks, too, played an inconsistent side, the fellow South African Cheetahs, winning 34-15 in Durban. The Cheetahs controlled the first half, leading 15-6 at the break. In the second half, the Sharks stormed home, led by Ryan Kankowski and Keegan Daniels.
The two finals games on Saturday will be controlled by the South African referees, Jaco Payper (Bulls-Crusaders) and Jonathan Kaplan (Reds-Sharks). As South African teams will contest both Semi-finals, there have been renewed calls for independent referees.
The Stormers and Chiefs have a bye.
Next weekend, the Stormers (1st) play the lower-ranked winner in Cape Town, while the Chiefs (2nd) play the higher-ranked winner in Hamilton.
Peter Lalanabarvi has over 30 years experience as a rugby writer.
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