An all-Australian Super Rugby grand final is a tantalising possibility ahead of two trans-Tasman semi-final blockbusters on the penultimate weekend.
Rested defending champions NSW Waratahs will go into Saturday’s home clash at Allianz Stadium as clear favourites against the Highlanders, despite losing to them 26-19 in Dunedin back in round five.
But hopes of an historic all-Australian title decider in Sydney probably rest most heavily with a travel-weary Brumbies outfit pulling off a shock upset of the ladder-topping Hurricanes in Wellington beforehand.
To do so they must not only stifle the most potent attack in the competition but overcome the long trip from Cape Town where they eliminated South Africa’s last hope, beating the Stormers 39-19 – six tries to one – in their qualifying final on Sunday morning (AEST).
They will likely also have to do it without Wallaby winger Henry Speight who copped a red card for a dangerous tackle when he upended Stormers centre Juan de Jongh without the ball.
The Brumbies will surely draw on memories of 2013 when they beat the Bulls in Pretoria in a semi-final then travelled to New Zealand and led late in the grand final against the Chiefs.
On that occasion they finally succumbed 27-22 as they were overrun and then-coach Jake White copped blame for not trusting his bench enough.
Certainly skipper Stephen Moore considers it anything but a mission impossible.
“You’ve just got to dig deep and find that extra little bit,” said Moore. “There’s no avoiding the fact that (the travel) is not ideal.
“But that’s when the character of the side comes in…I’m confident that there’s enough character in the side to be able to take our game to another level, which we are going to need to do.”
Wallabies winger Joe Tomane set up the Brumbies win over the Stormers with a brilliant hat-trick of tries in the opening 25 minutes.
The Brumbies didn’t play the Hurricanes in the regular season and managed just one win in four games against New Zealand sides, beating the Highlanders 31-18 in Canberra in April.
The Highlanders scored a 24-14 win over Kiwi rivals the Chiefs in a thrilling qualifying final at home in Dunedin on Saturday.
It was the first post-season game the Highlanders have hosted since 1999, the year they went on to lose the final to the Crusaders.
Highlanders halfback Aaron Smith was instrumental for his side helping set up both of his side’s tries to outstanding winger Waisake Naholo.
“We’ll savour this moment, but we will have to work hard next week,” said Highlanders captain and fullback Ben Smith whose side beat the Waratahs 26-19 in Dunedin in March.
SUPER RUGBY FINALS
SATURDAY, JUNE 27
1-Hurricanes (NZ) v 6-Brumbies (Aus), Westpac Stadium, Wellington, 1735AEST
2-NSW Waratahs (Aus) v 4-Highlanders (NZ), Allianz Stadium, Sydney, 1955AEST
Saturday, July 4