The Melbourne Rebels entered the final round of the regular season inside the top eight but were tossed aside 59-8 by the Hamilton-based Chiefs who stormed into the playoffs.
The Rebels conceded 125 points in their last two matches, finishing in 11th place. The New South Wales Waratahs — who were also alive in the final round — finished 12th, the Queensland Reds 14th and Japan’s Sunwolves, who make up the Australia conference, were last.
The results again focus attention on the poor form of Australian teams after a season which began with some promise. The Rebels beat the Brumbies in the opening round and again in round three, winning five of their first six games.
The Waratahs became the first team in two seasons to beat the Crusaders but struggled to build momentum and were affected by off-field controversy around fullback Israel Folau whose contract was terminated for breaching Rugby Australia’s code of conduct.
The Reds, who are in a development stage, showed promise at times but weren’t consistent. It was the Brumbies, the only Australian team with a positive win-loss record (10-6), who finished strongest to clinch the conference, winning their last six games.
That sends the Brumbies into the playoffs in confident mood as they attempt to end a 15-year title drought.
“There’s no ladder now,” said coach Dan McKellar who was little known before the season began. “It’s all back to square one so you’ve got to front up next Saturday night.
“I think we’re ready. Our game’s in good shape: our defence, set piece, we’re taking our opportunities in attack and creating plenty of opportunity in attack.”
The Brumbies, with home advantage, might yet get through to the semifinals as they take on a Sharks team which qualified sixth with a 7-8-1 record.
But the wider picture for Australian rugby is not bright. Even after the painful upheaval which saw the Perth-based Western Force ejected from the tournament, Australian teams lack the depth of New Zealand and South African opponents.
A lack of investment in player development over many years is taking a toll. Even in the last week there have been reports of another apparent effort by Rugby Australia to lure a leading player from Rugby League. The same investment in grassroots might yield a greater bounty.
The failure of three Australian teams to win places in the playoffs may also have repurcusions at this year’s World Cup.
Rebels captain Reece Hodge said players in teams that missed the playoffs might be overlooked for places in Australia’s World Cup squad.
“I know myself I’ve been horrible the last couple of weeks,” Hodge said, adding “if it costs me my (Wallabies) spot then I have to live with that.”
If Australia can’t find a team capable of winning Super Rugby, it’s unlikely that from the remnants of those sides, they can find a team capable of winning this year’s World Cup.
Crusaders (1) v Highlanders (8)
Jaguares (2) v Chiefs (7)
Hurricanes (4) v Bulls (5)
Brumbies (3) v Sharks (6)