The Super Rugby Pacific format has been widely criticized ever since it was announced in August that eight of the 14 teams would be involved in the finals.
With just six sides missing out on the sudden death stages of the competition, many felt poorly performing teams could still be rewarded with a finals berth at the end of the season.
In 2022, such an event has transpired with the Highlanders securing eighth spot over the weekend following a bonus point loss to the Melbourne Rebels in Dunedin, despite the southerners mustering just four wins throughout the year. As such, the Highlanders will take on the Blues at Eden Park this Saturday in a repeat of last year’s Trans-Tasman final and while they will unsurprisingly enter the match as massive underdogs, it would be foolish to write them off completely – at least according to two Super Rugby centurions.
Speaking on the latest episode of the Aotearoa Rugby Podpanellists Bryn Hall and James Parsons both suggested that while it would take a mammoth effort from the Highlanders to get a win at Eden Park this weekend, it’s certainly not out of the question entirely.
“They’re always a chance,” said Crusaders halfback Hall. “I think any time you want to take the Highlanders lightly, they love that (underdog) tag.
“They would have loved to have their form a lot better, and been able to be more confident around that but look, you’re in the playoff, you’ve done enough to be able to get there and you’ve got nothing to lose. All the pressure isnt on them, it’s on the Blues. The expectation is for the Blues to win that comfortably and the Highlander can just throw the kitchen sink.”
Former Blues hooker Parsons noted that the Highlanders have some experience taking on the Blues in a knockout game at Eden Park, citing last year’s final as a match for the southerners to take heart from.
“They will have learned a lot from that, they’ll take a lot from that,” he said. “And it was very similar that night, the Blues were expected to win and they just stayed in that fight.
“I think it will be a big ask [but] I still think they’re always a chance.”
Hall and Parsons also both defended the finals format for this year’s competition as it ensured results were crucial right down to the final game of the regular season. Had the Highlanders not earned a bonus point in their defeat at the hands of the Rebels, for example, the Western Force would have taken their spot in the top eight.
“I think it’s outstanding because I don’t know how many more eyes would have tuned in on the weekend but I’m sure they did after the Hurricanes’ loss (to the Force on Saturday night). It made it interesting,” said Parsons. “We’re talking about games that wouldn’t matter if it was a top four. It keeps people engaged.
“I know some people see it as ridiculous and so forth but I just don’t. I just think it makes it entertaining because there’s something on the line. If there’s nothing on the line, what’s exciting about it?
“If the Highlanders go on to win, it’s a reflection of how hard this comp is. Either way, it’s an advert for the comp – which is what we need, people being engaged in our game. No team wants to have a win-loss record that’s heavily weighted (towards losses) but you’re not always going to get the top sides always winning.”
Hall also reaffirmed the benefits of doing away with the conference systems of old which oftentimes saw the top Australian and South African sides rewarded with home finals, despite finishing in a poorer position than their Kiwi counterparts.
“There’s been a little bit of disagreement around previous competition structures around the conference system and the Australian and South African teams getting a home final – or a home semi-final or quarter-final – with New Zealand teams having more points. So I’ve actually really enjoyed that you’ve actually been rewarded around your performances throughout the year and you’re getting home advantage based on just your points,” he said. “That’s one thing I’ve enjoyed. If you win and you’re consistent throughout the whole year, it doesn’t matter where you’re from, which country you’re from, being able to get rewarded with that with a home quarter-final.”
The Super Rugby Pacific quarter-finals kick off on Friday with the Crusaders hosting the Reds in Christchurch before a triple-header on Saturday.
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