Opinion – The possibility was there that the Super Rugby Pacific quarter-finals would give us an upset, even though most New Zealand fans aren’t really that fussed as long as this much-maligned playoff system generates a Blues v Crusaders final at Eden Park.
In the end, all the games went according to the form guide, which meant we said goodbye to the Highlanders and Hurricanes for this season, one in which neither really deserved to progress any further than they got, anyway.
First, much has been said about the fact that the Highlanders were even in the playoffs at all. Their record stands at a paltry four wins and 11 losses, including their first six on the bounce.
That was despite playing the first three games on home territory due to the competition relocating the Queenstown, which seems like a lifetime ago now.
There were signs of a resurgence against the Canes, Blues or Crusaders in rounds three, four and five, but all games ended in defeat and the aesthetic value of each performance was low.
Wins did come, almost all against the teams that finished below them on the table. The shallow squad depth was tested more often than it should have been, major combination changes were frequent and indiscipline cost the Highlanders dearly.
To make matters even worse, coach Tony Brown decided to leave before the season had even finished, heading over to Japan to resume his role with their national team alongside Jamie Joseph.
The fact that, by that stage, no one even seemed to care says a lot about just where the Highlanders sit in peoples’ perceptions.
However, there were some positives: the performances of their loose forwards were consistently good and threw a couple of names into the All Black picture. There was a lot of irony of having their two best players, Aaron Smith and Folau Fakatava, in the same position – while outside of them the converted winger Sam Gilbert appeared to be a solution to their problems at 10.
That was, of course, until Gilbert got himself sent off and suspended for perhaps the stupidest red card of the whole season (which is really saying something, because there have been a lot).
That contributed to a loss to the Waratahs at Forsyth Barr Stadium that completely sucked the life out of what had been a brief resurgence in form for the Highlanders, then a subsequent loss to the Rebels in Melbourne meant Saturday night’s 35-6 quarter-final loss to the Blues was a mere formality.
Meanwhile, the Hurricanes’ eight win, seven loss season was a little bit more complex. They came in with very low expectations and a squad that would be heavily reliant on their All Black stars being on the field and in top form all the time.
But really, 2022 was again dominated by the search for a long term replacement for Beauden Barrett, with Ruben Love and Aidan Morgan given opportunities to impress before coach Jason Holland finally settled on the latter.
Did he take too long? You’d have to argue that it did, given that while the Canes had some impressive wins (they are the only team to beat the Blues this year) they also had a shocking loss to a Moana Pasifika team who didn’t even play that well against them.
The Canes inability to claim any more big scalps after the Blues is upset, ultimately, why they headed to Canberra as the underdogs against the Brumbies in their quarterfinal. Morgan’s progress has been encouraging, though, so hopefully he will be given a more assured presence next year.
The campaign unearthed some real talent for the future in other positions, Josh Moorby proved to be a rare reverse case of the Canes smartly snaring talent from another region. Brayden Iose, TK Howden and Justin Sangster look like the sort of guys they can build a forward pack around, while Bailyn Sullivan added as much to the Canes’ backline as his brother Zarn has for the Blues.
The most annoying thing about the Canes is that, really, they had the key parts to go further in this competition. But, apart from a couple of results, they beat the teams below them and lost to the ones above them in 2022. So to see them go out on a rainy night in Canberra to an efficient Brumbies side really wasn’t much of a surprise .