I almost want to say finally the real rugby can start in Super Rugby.
Knockout rugby is cruel but exciting in the same way and at least we have the next three weeks of the top teams in the competition fighting it out to try and beat the Crusaders
We have four New Zealand teams in the first week of the playoffs, two South African teams, one Aussie side and the Jaguares.
With the conference system of SANZAAR the three conference winners all have home playoff matches this weekend which means that the Crusaders, Lions and Waratahs are in the inside line with the Hurricanes also having a home game this weekend for finishing forth overall.
The first game this weekend will be from New Zealand as the Hurricanes and the Chiefs will go at each other for a place in next weeks semi-finals.
Saturday morning the Crusaders will host the Sharks as still the favourites to take the title again.
The Waratahs will host the Highlanders in Australia later on Saturday morning and the weekend will end of with the Lions hosting the Jaguares in Jo’burg.
Friday 20 July at 09:35
Hurricanes v Chiefs(@ Westpac Stadium, Wellington)
This for me will be the game of the weekend with the two New Zealand top sides going at each other for 80+ minutes.
No one needs to be invited twice to make time to see two New Zealand sides playing and more so in a playoff.
Last week the Chiefs got the better of the Hurricanes in the last league match of the season with a brilliant start racing to a good lead early on.
One can expect a much closer contest come Friday as the two teams will make sure not to give away easy points.
The Hurricanes had a great start to the season but started to stubble a bit at the end with a few losses but they have quality players and coaches and will be up for this one.
The Hurricanes have never been easy at home to beat and that has never changed and with a fully fit team they gonna be difficult to stop.
The Chiefs have a massive attacking game and they have game breakers throughout their seven backs.
They are not just game breakers at this level but also international level and it is almost like a flick of a switch for them to get going.
The problem for the Hurricanes does not just lie with the backs this weekend. With world class players like Retallick, Messam and Cane they control the dark art as well.
The Chiefs will have to cut out their errors if they want to upset the Hurricanes at home.
Smart rugby has done it normally for the Hurricanes and they need to make sure that they control the controllable’s. It is difficult to see players like the Barrett brothers, Milner-Skudder, Laumape and Perenara not making a huge impact.
One thing is for sure we are in for a classic.
Prediction: I am going with Hurricanes, but Chiefs can easily do it as well, Canes by 6
Hurricanes: 15 Nehe Milner-Skudder, 14 Julian Savea, 13 Jordie Barrett, 12 Ngani Laumape, 11 Ben Lam, 10 Beauden Barrett, 9 TJ Perenara, 8 Blade Thomson, 7 Gareth Evans, 6 Brad Shields (c)/Reed Prinsep, 5 Sam Lousi, 4 Michael Fatialofa, 3 Jeff Toomaga-Allen, 2 Ricky Riccitelli, 1 Toby Smith
Replacements: 16 James O’Reilly, 17 Chris Eves, 18 Ben May, 19 Vaea Fifita, 20 Reed Prinsep/Sam Henwood, 21 Jamie Booth, 22 Ihaia West, 23 Wes Goosen/Jonah Lowe
Chiefs: 15 Solomon Alaimalo, 14 Sean Wainui, 13 Anton Lienert-Brown, 12 Charlie Ngatai, 11 Shaun Stevenson, 10 Damian McKenzie, 9 Brad Weber, 8 Liam Messam, 7 Sam Cane, 6 Lachlan Boshier, 5 Michael Allardice, 4 Brodie Retallick, 3 Angus Ta’avao, 2 Nathan Harris, 1 Karl Tu’inukuafe
Replacements: 16 Liam Polwart, 17 Sam Prattley, 18 Jeff Thwaites, 19 Jesse Parete, 20 Mitch Karpik, 21 Te Toiroa Tahuriorangi, 22 Marty McKenzie, 23 Alex Nankivell
Saturday 21 July
Crusaders v Sharks (@ AMI Stadium, Christchurch)
Although it will take a outright miracle for the Sharks to cause an upset on Saturday to kick out the inform team for the past two years, anything is always possible in knockout rugby.
For the Sharks they have nothing to proof as as most have written them off already and that is the one thing that makes this such a dangerous game for the Crusaders.
If you normally have nothing to loose you tend to play with more freedom and give yourself a chance.
Last year the Sharks faced the Lions also away from home in the quarter finals and lost narrowly from what most Sharks supporters still say was bad officiating.
That the Sharks have quality players have never been the problem but the way these top players have perform every year and this year has made most supporters red around the head.
Not many teams come to the Crusaders back yard and win and even more so at this stage of the competition. With all their top players ready for action this Crusaders side have set the bar much higher than any team at this stage in Super Rugby.
If there is a South African team that can win in New Zealand then it is the Sharks who has a great record even when the chips are down.
The biggest problem for the Sharks will be that their is just nothing in the Crusaders game that they can explode.
They have 12 All Blacks in their starting fifteen which just tells you how difficult it is at this level to beat this team.
They bring 99% of the time test match quality to a provincial competition which most teams can not compete against.
If their brilliant attack is not enough to make teams running for the hills they have a 85.5% tackles success rate, the highest in the competition.
For the Sharks they will only be able to beat this team in dominating in their pack and disrupting their ball.
Scoring plenty of tries fro first-phase possession tells the story how structured this team are and the opening half will be crucial for the Sharks.
It will take a massive effort from the Sharks on defence and keeping the ball to pull this one off and this can turn out to be a high scoring hammering if they cannot contain this Crusaders side.
Prediction: Sorry for all my Sharks friends but Crusaders by 18+
Crusaders: 15 David Havili, 14 Seta Tamanivalu, 13 Jack Goodhue, 12 Ryan Crotty, 11 George Bridge, 10 Richie Mo’unga, 9 Bryn Hall, 8 Kieran Read, 7 Matt Todd, 6 Jordan Taufua, 5 Samuel Whitelock (c), 4 Scott Barrett, 3 Owen Franks, 2 Codie Taylor, 1 Tim Perry
Replacements: 16 Andrew Makalio, 17 Wyatt Crockett, 18 Michael Alaalatoa, 19 Luke Romano, 20 Pete Samu, 21 Mitchell Drummond, 22 Mitchell Hunt, 23 Manasa Mataele
Sharks:15 Curwin Bosch, 14 Kobus van Wyk, 13 Lukhanyo Am, 12 Andre Esterhuizen, 11 Lwazi Mvovo, 10 Robert du Preez, 9 Louis Schreuder, 8 Daniel du Preez, 7 Jacques Vermeulen, 6 Philip van der Walt, 5 Ruan Botha (c), 4 Tyler Paul, 3 Thomas du Toit, 2 Akker van der Merwe, 1 Tendai Mtawarira.
Replacements: 16 Chiliboy Ralepelle, 17 Juan Schoeman, 18 John-Hubert Meyer, 19 Hyron Andrews, 20 Wian Vosloo, 21 Cameron Wright, 22 Marius Louw, 23 Makazole Mapimpi.
Waratahs v Highlanders (@ Allianz Stadium, Sydney)
The outcome of this match depends on which of the two teams pitch up on the day.
With the Waratahs at home in Sydney they have the slight edge and but we have seen before how the Highlanders can just run away from teams.
In some way these two teams are the same in that the one week they look like champions and the next week you wonder why they are even playing in this tournament.
At home the Highlanders are almost unbeatable but they have struggled on the road which gives the Waratahs a good chance to get into the semi’s
The Waratahs are a team with allot of quality players but sometimes it just all go wrong for them. That is why I always compare them with the Sharks, having the quality but struggled to put that on the field.
They have plenty of international experience in the team and they have been much better this year but they need now to be on par for the next three weeks to be able to compete against the best.
Folau will be key to their success and his game has been the great this year for the Waratahs and the Wallabies.
The key for them will be Foley and Phipps at halfback who needs to control the side on attack and in defence.
As with all the New Zealand sides, the Highlanders can demolish you in a few minutes and they will need to make sure that they do not get off to a good start.
Playing catchup rugby this weekend is were no team wants to be.
Upfront the Waratahs may have the slight edge but the Highlanders tight five have been much better this year and even give some quality packs a hard time.
With attacking opportunities being created out of nothing the Highlanders are a dangerous side.
They will try and force the Waratahs in making mistakes so that they can counter which is something the Waratahs will not want.
The Waratahs handling errors and decision making have cost them in plenty of matches and if they do not get it right this weekend the Highlanders will punish them.
For once we can expect an exciting match in Australia as these two teams fight it out.
Prediction: It is almost a flip of the coin for me but I will go with the home side, Tahs by 4
Waratahs: 15 Israel Folau, 14 Alex Newsome, 13 Curtis Rona, 12 Kurtley Beale, 11 Taqele Naiyaravoro, 10 Bernard Foley (captain), 9 Nick Phipps, 8 Michael Wells, 7 Will Miller, 6 Ned Hanigan, 5 Rob Simmons, 4 Jed Holloway, 3 Sekope Kepu, 2 Damien Fitzpatrick, 1 Tom Robertson
Replacements: 16 Tolu Latu, 17 Harry Johnson-Holmes, 18 Paddy Ryan, 19 Tom Staniforth, 20 Brad Wilkin, 21 Jake Gordon, 22 Cameron Clark, 23 Bryce Hegarty
Highlanders: 15 Ben Smith (co-captain), 14 Waisake Naholo, 13 Rob Thompson, 12 Teihorangi Walden, 11 Tevita Li, 10 Lima Sopoaga, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Luke Whitelock, 7 James Lentjes, 6 Liam Squire, 5 Tom Franklin, 4 Jackson Hemopo, 3 Tyrel Lomax, 2 Liam Coltman, 1 Daniel Lienert-Brown
Replacements: 16 Ash Dixon (co-captain), 17 Aki Seiuli, 18 Kalolo Tuiloma, 19 Shannon Frizell, 20 Elliot Dixon, 21 Kayne Hammington, 22 Josh Ioane, 23 Matt Faddes
Lions v Jaguares (@ Emirates Airline Park, Johannesburg)
In this game South Africans real hope lies again when the Lions host the Jaguares on Saturday in the last of the Quarter Final matches.
Although they did not have the same great year as in 2017 this Lions side have got better as the competition went on.
Welcoming back some crucial injured players also helped allot in them maybe finding form at the right time.
Playing at home will mean allot to the team and they will are also able to put their strongest possible team on the field this weekend.
Leading the pack, Warren Whiteley have made a huge impact in the Lions side since returning from injury and coach De Bruin will depend on his captain to get the troops going.
Cronje is also back in the starting lineup and his partnership with Jantjies will be crucial in the way they play the game.
He made an a huge difference when he came on last week against the Bulls and got the Lions backs going.
At the back the Lions have the ability to score tries with Coetzee back on good form and Combrick doing what he does best, scoring tries.
The real success of this team lies in their pack and Springbok Marx is the leader here.
His ability to change the flow of a game has made him vital in the way the Lions turn games around.
He steals balls as will and his impact in the scrums and lineouts are the best in the world.
He is by far the best number two in the world and proof it every Saturday. The combination between Brink, Smith and Whiteley just work like a well oiled 1973 Massey Ferguson tractor.
When on song this Lions team can beat the best their is but defence have been a problem this year.
I was great news to hear that Springbok defence guru Jacques Nienaber spend some time this week with them to help them for the important match.
The Jaguares have been one of the best sides this year in the competition keeping ball in hand and when they do they score.
They have a great ability to score from turnovers and mistakes. They are a very dangerous side when they have their tails up and although they lost their last two group matches in South Africa they will go out in a blaze of glory if they have to this weekend.
Their pack have been able to get back that well earned respect we always had for the Argentinian forwards and they have impact players that come of the bench to keep it going.
This is a very difficult side to face in the playoffs and we can expect the South America passion to come with the determination when they run onto the field in their first playoff game since they join Super Rugby three years ago.
Beside the Hurricanes v Chiefs matchup this game is the one that I am looking forward to and it will be the perfect ending to the first week of playoffs.
Prediction: Although the Jaguares will come out with everything they have and maybe think they have, I do still see the Lions winning it by 10
Lions – 15 Andries Coetzee, 14 Ruan Combrinck, 13 Lionel Mapoe, 12 Harold Vorster, 11 Aphiwe Dyantyi, 10 Elton Jantjies, 9 Ross Cronjé, 8 Warren Whiteley (c), 7 Cyle Brink, 6 Kwagga Smith, 5 Franco Mostert, 4 Marvin Orie, 3 Ruan Dreyer, 2 Malcolm Marx, 1 Jacques van Rooyen.
Replacements: 16 Corne Fourie, 17 Dylan Smith, 18 Johannes Jonker, 19 Lourens Erasmus, 20 Marnus Schoeman, 21 Dillon Smith, 22 Courtnall Skosan, 23 Howard Mnisi.
Jaguares – TBC