So often in the knockout stages of rugby tournaments – indeed, most sports if we think about it – the games themselves can become dour, overly-defensive, minimise-mistakes-at-all-costs affairs as teams knuckle down to progress to the next stage by any means necessary.
But the four Super Rugby quarter-finals on the weekend served up anything but. All four games were thrilling, rich with wonderful attacking phases built on the back of great defence.
The Crusaders and Brumbies would all have earned bonus points if their games were played a week earlier. The Chiefs would have bagged a losing bonus point from their raucous encounter in Buenos Aires, and the Bulls would have in Wellington as well.
Super Rugby in 2019 has served up some wonderful rugby, with thoroughly enjoyable games to be found every week. But the four quarter-finals have set a new benchmark for quality, each one trying to out-do the previous game, and all of them in the space of 30 hours of each other.
And what that has left us with is two semi-finals this weekend that on one hand look like they should logically go to the home sides, while on the other hand bringing the realisation that the two travelling teams are every bit capable of winning through the final.
In turn, that gives us four teams who will each have a compelling line of form behind them, and who each would be every bit as deserving if it’s them holding up the multi-legged Super Rugby spaceship cup on July 6.
The Crusaders did to the Highlanders what I think most of us were expecting, and what Highlanders fans were fearing.
Though the Highlanders got the jump in the first twenty minutes and led 7-3 after having an earlier try disallowed, two converted tries in five minutes put the Crusaders up 17-7 up after half an hour. It would be a preview of what was to come after the break, even though the still allowed the Highlanders a sniff, with a try just before halftime narrowing the gap to three.
The second half was simply the Crusaders at their best. The Highlanders lost flaker Liam Squire to a yellow card just after halftime, and that was the crack that forced the dam wall to burst as the Crusaders proceeded to run in three converted tries in twelve minutes.
They secured their home semi-final with a dominant 38-14 win and underlined their competition favouritism in one fell swoop. As if it was ever in doubt.
The Jaguares won what I genuinely believe to be one of the games of 2019, a patient, but herculean defensive effort that waited for the Chiefs to makes mistakes and then pounced when the inevitable opportunity came up.
At 16-8 up heading into the last half hour, the Chiefs would have fancied their chances.
But it was the Jaguares who pounced. The first opportunity to press the Chiefs line saw a patient build-up, and once they satisfied themselves they’d sucked the Chiefs defenders inwards enough, they went wide and went wide quickly.
A wide ball found Pablo Matera in the outside channels, and in acres of space and defenders not quite sure who to come in on, the Jaguares skipper threw a wonderful pass to find Matias Moroni out on the sideline.
With the Estadio Jose Amalfitani crowd growing in both voice and volume, the desperation from the Chiefs only grew. And with more desperation came more opportunities and infringements – the first of which came only a couple of minutes after Moroni’s try, and which Joaquin Diaz Bonilla happily converted into three points to regain the lead.
From there, they rolled the sleeves up and let the crowd lift them home. Scrums were cheered; effectively mauls were loudly welcomed. Big tackles lifted the proverbial roof. ‘Imagine having to win a semi-final there next weekend’, I remember thinking at the time.
A 35-28 scoreline suggests the Hurricanes had to work hard for their quarter-final, and they did to a degree, though even with the extent of the Bulls comeback over the last 45 minutes, I never really had a thought that the ‘Canes were in trouble.
And that speaks to both the control they had on the contest, and the quality of their opening half hour, by which time they led 24-7.
The Bulls twice exposed the Hurricanes left edge defence, with Cornal Hendricks crossing for a double, and again forcing winger Salesi Rayasi to infringe in an effort to stop what Nic Berry decided would’ve have been another try for Hendricks.
The Bulls played the patient game, no doubt, and even forced the Hurricanes into taking penalty goals as they came up. He did it with penalty advantage at the time, but it’s a rare occasion that Beauden Barrett starts thinking about drop goals.
Come Saturday night, and the Brumbies simply turned in one of most complete forty minute-performances I can recall, to blow the Sharks away in the first half, to lead 24-6 at the break.
It’s always tempting, when the Brumbies start a game so convincingly, to go back to the 2004 Final as a benchmark, and even though there probably have been more recent examples of first half of sheer dominance.
Once it became apparent that the Sharks had no real way of changing up their lateral and utterly predictable attack in the second half, it just became matter of the Brumbies staying on top through their defence.
And stay on top they did. Camped in their own half for the second half, and with as little as 27per cent of second half possession according to some stats sheets, the Brumbies made more than twice as many tackles as the Sharks to clinically choke them out of the contest.
So then there was four.
The four top seeds have won through, though interestingly, it’s the top-seed Crusaders bringing the ‘worst’ form line into the semi: they’ve had a loss and a draw in their last five games, compared to the Hurricanes’ one loss and four straight wins.
In the other semi-final, it’s momentum central; the Jaguares are on a six-game winning streak, and have actually won ten of their last eleven games.
The Brumbies have won nine of their last ten, including their last seven on the trot, something they’ve never done before in their history, not even in the Championship years of 2001 and 2004.
Five days out, and the Final could easily be played in one of three different cities, and all four semi-finalists go into the penultimate weekend of the season with a decent shot at the title.
And you thought the quarter-finals were good.