Super Rugby quarterfinals preview: storylines, team lists, tips

Just eight teams remain in Super Rugby for 2018, as the opening weekend of the playoffs arrives.

Three of the four encounters look set to be tight affairs, but it will take some sort of miracle from the Sharks if they're to upset the red-hot competition favourites, the Crusaders.

Read on as we take a detailed look at each of the four quarterfinals.

Hurricanes vs. Chiefs, Westpac Stadium, Wellington, 5.35pm (AEST), Friday

Of all the teams in the Super Rugby finals, it's the Hurricanes and Chiefs who have legitimate cause to whinge about the conference system. Chris Boyd's side do at least have a home game, but given they finished with the second-best record in the competition, they'd much rather be entertaining the travel-weary Jaguares than a Chiefs side riding the momentum of three straight wins. They must also recover from last week's loss in Hamilton, where the Chiefs charged out of the blocks to build a 21-0 lead.

Few people gave the Chiefs a chance of beating the Hurricanes in Round 19 given the absence of All Blacks Damian McKenzie and Sam Cane, but they were the far superior team and even managed to overcome the loss of Johnny Fa'auli who was rightly red-carded for a sickening shoulder charge. Aside from the final 20 minutes against the Brumbies, the Chiefs have been the other form Super Rugby team since the June break. A fresh Damian McKenzie is back, as are Cane, Charlie Ngatai, Nathan Harris and Sean Wainui.

How the Hurricanes win it

It's no secret the Hurricanes have been struggling for the back half of the competition, you can go back as far as their 38-34 win over the Reds for evidence of some widening cracks. From that game onwards, the Hurricanes have conceded an average 27.3 points; in the first 13 rounds of the competition, that figure was 19.1. So it must start with shoring up their defensive structures. Scoring points has never been a Hurricanes problem, while their record at home is ominous - 21 of their last 22 matches; it sounds simple, but Friday is all about defence for the Canes.

How the Chiefs win it

In their three games since the June break, the Chiefs have laid a firm first-half platform. They led the Highlanders 42-0, Brumbies 17-0 and Hurricanes 21-0; attack and defence working in perfect harmony. While they were outscored considerably in each of those second halves, the work they had done in the first 40 set the opposition a chase that was always going to be difficult. The recipe has got to be the same this week; if the Chiefs are to steal one on the road they have to build a lead and survive a Hurricanes' surge that will come at some point. McKenzie must provide the spark, then Brodie Retallick, Liam Messam and Cane the defensive resistance.


Chiefs: Solomon Alaimalo, Sean Wainui, Anton Lienert-Brown, Charlie Ngatai (co-c), Shaun Stevenson, Damian McKenzie, Brad Weber, Liam Messam, Sam Cane (co-c), Lachlan Boshier, Michael Allardice, Brodie Retallick, Angus Ta'avao, Nathan Harris, Karl Tu'inukuafe. Reserves: Liam Polwart, Sam Prattley, Jeff Thwaites, Jesse Parete, Mitch Karpik, Te Toiroa Tahuriorangi, Marty McKenzie, Alex Nankivell.

Hurricanes: Nehe Milner-Skudder, Julian Savea, Jordie Barrett, Ngani Laumape, Ben Lam, Beauden Barrett, TJ Perenara, Blade Thomson, Gareth Evans, Brad Shields/Reed Prinsep, Sam Lousi, Michael Fatialofa, Jeff To'omaga-Allen, Ricky Riccitelli, Toby Smith. Reserves: James O'Reilly, Chris Eves, Ben May, Vaea Fifita, Reed Prinsep/Sam Henwood, Jamie Booth, Ihaia West, Wes Goosen/Jonah Lowe.


The Hurricanes have been struggling for some time while the Chiefs have timed their run perfectly. Chiefs by three.

Crusaders vs. Sharks, AMI Stadium, Christchurch, 5.35pm (AEDT), Saturday

Only the Sharks players, and likely their mothers, believe they can actually upset the Crusaders, who finished 27 points ahead of the South African side. The Crusaders, who finished on top of the overall standings, powered their way to the playoffs on the back of 12 straight victories. The Sharks, meanwhile, can thank their lucky stars after the Rebels tripped over the final hurdle last week against the Highlanders.

The Durban side, though, have one of the best records against New Zealand opposition this year and aren't going to go all the way to Christchurch to roll over and play dead. While they have been inconsistent this season -- the main reason for their eighth-place finish -- they have the type of game that can upset the defending champions.

How the Crusaders win it

Just keep doing what they have been doing all year is the simple answer. The Crusaders do the basics better than anybody in Super Rugby, and they have very few weaknesses. They simply don't make mistakes; be it a crucial set-piece, simple dropped ball or a tackle that has to be made (they are annoying like that), while they have top game-breakers who can turn a game on its head in an instant.

How can the Sharks win it

Distract the referee and hit them with a few stun guns. But because there is a TMO (this may not even help ...) that plan won't work. The way the Sharks can beat the Crusaders is to take them out of their comfort zone, which is easier said than done. But the Sharks need to play in the Crusaders' faces and halt their momentum, but also come up with a few moments of brilliance. They'll need a fair share of luck, too.


Crusaders: David Havili, Seta Tamanivalu, Jack Goodhue, Ryan Crotty, George Bridge, Richie Mo'unga, Bryn Hall, Kieran Read, Matt Todd, Jordan Taufua, Sam Whitelock (capt), Scott Barrett, Owen Franks, Codie Taylor, Tim Perry. Reserves: Andrew Makalio, Wyatt Crockett, Michael Alaalatoa, Luke Romano, Pete Samu, Mitchell Drummond, Mitchell Hunt, Manasa Mataele.

Sharks: Curwin Bosch, Kobus van Wyk, Lukhanyo Am, Andre Esterhuizen, Lwazi Mvovo, Robert du Preez, Louis Schreuder, Daniel du Preez, Jacques Vermeulen, Philip van der Walt, Ruan Botha (captain), Tyler Paul, Thomas du Toit, Akker van der Merwe, Tendai Mtawarira Reserves: Chiliboy Ralepelle, Juan Schoeman, John-Hubert Meyer, Hyron Andrews, Wian Vosloo, Cameron Wright, Marius Louw, Makazole Mapimpi.


Only a fool would bet against the Crusaders, they'll win by 21.

Waratahs vs. Highlanders, Allianz Stadium, Sydney, 8.05pm (AEST), Saturday

Second spot and two more games at home within their grasp, the Waratahs delivered their worst performance since the 29-0 loss to the Lions in falling to the Brumbies in Round 19. Coach Daryl Gibson later slammed their lack of commitment, and rightfully so, the Kiwi suggesting the looming finals campaign had distracted his troops at the most inopportune time. But there was evidence of a faltering Waratahs side the previous two weeks as well; a late escape against the Rebels and a second-half onslaught against a 14-man Sunwolves were anything but convincing.

Similarly, the Highlanders' form has hardly been first rate following the June Test interval. They were towelled up by the Chiefs in Suva before being well beaten on the road in Christchurch, and then were pushed all the way by the Rebels in Dunedin last week. They were down on troops for that most recent clash; but only in the first half against the Crusaders did they resemble anything like the team that beat the Hurricanes in Round 16. While they were beaten in Sydney earlier this year, the venue should hold few demons; the 2015 Highlanders took down the Waratahs in a semifinal on route to the title.

How the Waratahs win it

Again without skipper Michael Hooper, the Waratahs require drastic improvement up front if they're to advance to the semifinals next week. The NSW forwards were comprehensively outplayed last week while their lineout, which has been among the competition's best, also went awry. It's no secret the Waratahs' hopes hinge on their ability to get game-breakers Kurtley Beale and Israel Folau the ball in space; but the duo requires a broken defensive line to be most effective, so the impressions must be made through the middle first. They'll need a big night on the carry from Sekope Kepu, Ned Hanigan and Michael Wells.

How the Highlanders win it

The Highlanders executed a marvellous game plan to sink the Waratahs in Sydney in their 2015 semifinal based around a concentrated kicking game; it has merits again three years on. Look for the Highlanders to try and isolate Taqele Naiyaravoro by repeatedly kicking in behind the Fijian winger and asking him to turn and chase. The plan has risks, if an adequate chase fails to arrive or the kick finds Folau instead, but the Highlanders have long preferred to play without the ball than with it. They'll tackle all day and wait for the Waratahs to cough it up; the counterattack then ensues.


Waratahs: Israel Folau, Alex Newsome, Curtis Rona, Kurtley Beale, Taqele Naiyaravoro, Bernard Foley (capt), Nick Phipps, Michael Wells, Will Miller, Ned Hanigan, Rob Simmons, Jed Holloway, Sekope Kepu, Damien Fitzpatrick, Tom Robertson. Reserves: Tolu Latu, Harry Johnson-Holmes, Paddy Ryan, Tom Staniforth, Brad Wilkin, Jake Gordon, Cam Clark, Bryce Hegarty.

Highlanders: Ben Smith (co-captain), Waisake Naholo, Rob Thompson, Tei Walden, Tevita Li, Lima Sopoaga, Aaron Smith, Luke Whitelock, James Lentjes, Liam Squire, Jackson Hemopo, Tom Franklin, Tyrel Lomax, Liam Coltman, Daniel Lienert-Brown. Reserves: Ash Dixon (cc), Ask Seiuli, Kalolo Tuiloma, Shannon Frizell, Elliot Dixon, Kayne Hammington, Josh Ioane, Matt Faddes.


The Tahs just aren't the same team without Hooper. Highlanders by 13.

Lions vs. Jaguares, Ellis Park, Johannesburg, 11.05pm (AEST), Saturday

The Lions haven't been at their dangerous best this year, stuttering their way to second place on the overall log because of a poor Australian conference and no real contenders in the South African zone. However, they are going to come up against a Jaguares team who are going to back themselves to get a win at Ellis Park.

The Argentine side went on a run of seven wins on the trot, including beating the Lions in Buenos Aires, before losing to the Bulls and the Sharks on successive weekends. They also rested most of their top players last week, while the Lions had to beat the Bulls in a tough South African derby to make sure they clinched top spot in the SA conference.

How the Lions win it

The key for the Lions is momentum -- their way of playing depends on it. If the Lions dominate the set-pieces and get quick ball at the breakdown, their backline, fly-half Elton Jantjies in particular, will have a field day. The Jaguares are also known to give away the odd penalty and yellow card when they are under pressure. The Lions need to put them away quickly.

How Jaguares can win

The Jaguares like to spoil and disrupt, especially when they are playing high-octane teams like the Lions; and this could be the Argentines' key to victory. But they must play smart and do it within the laws of the game. They also need to put a lot of pressure on the Lions' playmakers, especially Jantjies, forcing them into mistakes. Jantjies has been pushed deeper and deeper behind the gain line when the heat has come on in previous finals contests.


Lions: Andries Coetzee, Ruan Combrinck, Lionel Mapoe, Harold Vorster, Aphiwe Dyantyi, Elton Jantjies, Ross Cronje, Warren Whiteley (captain), Cyle Brink, Kwagga Smith, Franco Mostert, Marvin Orie, Ruan Dreyer, Malcolm Marx, Jacques Van Rooyen Reserves: Corne Fourie, Dylan Smith, Johannes Jonker, Lourens Erasmus, Marnus Schoeman, Dillon Smit, Courtnall Skosan, Howard Mnisi.

Jaguares: TBA


The Lions will be too strong at home for a Jaguares team that still lack that composure needed to win a playoff match. Lions by 14.