Super Rugby Round 17: Chiefs deliver timely adrenalin shot, Waratahs eye second spot

The race for the Super Rugby finals went up a notch in Round 17 despite competition frontrunners, the Crusaders, enjoying an extra week's break following the June Test series.

The weekend may have begun with a match that had no impact on the make-up of the top eight, but what followed certainly didn't disappoint.

Read on for some of the key talking points across the weekend.

Australian Conference

Waratahs finally deliver when it matters

NSW Waratahs have played better rugby and lost this season, yet Friday night's victory over Melbourne Rebels was arguably their finest win of the year to date. And it's all but locked up the Australian conference title for the first time in three years, too.

Minus their two most consistent performers of 2018 and key game-breakers, Michael Hooper and Israel Folau, the Waratahs nailed the moments that eluded them against the likes of the Chiefs and Crusaders to down the Rebels 31-26 at AAMI Park.

Trailing 26-17 with 20 minutes to play, it was two more Wallabies who helped steer the Waratahs home in Kurtley Beale and Bernard Foley. After an indifferent June Test series, it could be the catalyst that fires Foley back to the top of his game.

For now, though, the midfield duo's late intercepts have put the Waratahs on the cusp of a home quarterfinal. A bonus-point victory against the Sunwolves on Saturday will be enough for NSW to lock up the Australian conference.

More importantly, they have now given themselves the opportunity to avoid a Kiwi side in the opening weekend of the playoffs by securing second place overall. Currently trailing the Lions by two points, the Waratahs will move into second spot on the overall ladder with a win this week as the South Africans have the Round 18 bye.

For the Waratahs, that would mean potentially avoiding any of the Chiefs, Highlanders and even the sliding Hurricanes, in the opening weekend of the playoffs. Conversely, it could mean a date with any of the Jaguares, Rebels, Sharks or potentially even the Lions themselves should they slip up in Round 19 and the Argentines win their final two games on the road in Africa.

Whatever the case, the Waratahs would love the chance to avoid New Zealand opposition in week one of the playoffs given they beat only the Highlanders - who were reduced to 14 men - from their four trans-Tasman battles this season.

If that does eventuate, the Waratahs will toast the final quarter in Melbourne when they at last seized the opportunity instead of settling for another admirable defeat. Games against the Blues, Crusaders and Chiefs all went begging earlier in the season, but on this occasion Gibson's men delivered.

While they missed 40 tackles in total, the Waratahs were asked to make 83 more than their opposition and, crucially, they stuck them in the tense final moments when it really counted. After three frustrating years in charge, Gibson is at last seeing some commitment from his players.

New Zealand Conference

Thank you, Chiefs, we needed that

It would have been nice to leave the frustrations of the Television Match Official, citing process and general dissatisfaction with the laws of the game during the June Test series just there: within the international period itself.

Alas, that lasted all of 20 minutes as similar problems arose from the Blues' clash with the Reds which marked Super Rugby's return following a month-long hiatus. Reds coach Brad Thorn couldn't bite his tongue after his side's 39-16 defeat by the Blues in a game that saw four yellow cards. It was an all too familiar feeling.

Thankfully, Super Rugby's dalliance with the Pacific Islands again delivered; in terms of the Chiefs' scintillating play if not the actual contest in Fiji itself.

Put simply, the Chiefs' first half at Suva's ANZ Stadium was among the best stanzas of rugby from the competition's 22-year history. In building a 42-0 lead at the break, the Chiefs capitalised on every chance that fell their way in a breathtaking display of rugby.

They received contributions from players at either ends of their careers, too, as Liam Messam wound back the clock and rising fullback Solomon Alaimano reaffirmed his undeniable quality. Messam was back bumping off defenders like he did during the Chiefs' back-to-back titles from 2012/13 while Alaimano weaved this way and that in racking up 10 tackle busts.

The Chiefs fullback shredded the Highlanders backline defence, before stepping inside the chasing cover to set the two-time champions on their way in just the second minute. Not to be outdone, his back-three teammates Toni Pulu and Sean Wainui also added their names to the scoresheet; Pulu's second icing a marvellous opening stanza after the hooter.

The Highlanders simply had no answer to the Chiefs' onslaught as the Waikato side drove with purpose from close range, cut through in open field and used turnover ball superbly in a performance that showcased the full array of rugby's skills. They had set-piece dominance, too, which saw a determined Brad Weber lay on a miracle ball for Luke Jacobsen's try.

All in all, it was a timely reminder what rugby has to offer when a team creates its own momentum and breaks free of the shackles that can often stifle the game, particularly at Test level.

Six first-half tries, all converted by No.10 Damian McKenzie, killed off the Highlanders' hopes of victory. While they managed to deny the Chiefs a bonus point with four second-half five-pointers of their own, the postmortem will ultimately discuss whether it was a smart idea for the Highlanders to take the game away from Dunedin considering their dominant home record.

For a short window of time however, it was nice to forget about judiciary panels, television replays and the merits of a decreasing tackle zone. This was rugby at its absolute best at a time when it needed an urgent shot of Adrenalin.

Just quietly, it's game on for second spot in the New Zealand conference and a home quarterfinal, too.

South African Conference

Look out, Lions

About a month ago it looked like the Lions were on course to comfortably finish top of the South African Conference. But now, with two rounds left in this year's competition, they could be easily be overtaken.

The Jaguares could leapfrog the South African team in the standings this coming weekend after claiming their sixth Super Rugby win a row with their 25-14 victory over the Stormers in Buenos Aires. The Lions, who have played one more match than the Argentina side, have given the Jaguares an opening after throwing away a lead against the Sharks in Durban.

The Jaguares are just two points behind the Lions in the standings, and they will go top of the South African Conference with a win over the Bulls in Pretoria on Saturday afternoon. The Lions have a bye this coming weekend.

The Sharks kept their playoff hopes alive with a win over the Lions. They showed a lot of guts and determination to get back in that game, after soaking up lots of pressure and making almost double the amount of tackles than their visitors throughout the game.

This win will give them a lot of confidence going into the last two games of the campaign. However, they need the Rebels to slip up if they are to qualify for the playoffs.