Super Rugby quarterfinals preview: Any potential upsets?

Super Rugby's playoff games have long been dominated by the home teams, but there has been cause for optimism for visiting teams over the past few years.

That has largely existed when New Zealand teams have visited Australia or South Africa, a circumstance that doesn't exist in this weekend's quarterfinals.

The Chiefs, however, do head for the first ever postseason game in Buenos Aires. Are the New Zealanders capable of spoiling the Jaguares' party?

Read on as we preview each of this weekend's games. [All times AEST]

Crusaders vs. Highlanders, Christchurch Stadium, 5.35 p.m., Friday

For the second time in three years, the Highlanders' reward for reaching the playoffs is... a quarterfinal against the Crusaders. In Christchurch.

Jealous much?

We didn't think so. But the Highlanders must somehow find a way to challenge their South Island rivals at a venue where their hosts are unbeaten in 27 matches and where they themselves have lost six of their past seven away from home.

It's little wonder, then, that some bookmakers have the Crusaders as short as a $1.16. It is, however, also worth remembering the two-time defending champions remain red-hot favourites to claim a third title on the trot at the $1.50 quote.

But there has also been signs they are not quite the same team as in the previous two years. For starters, they suffered two defeats this season, away to the Waratahs and Chiefs, the latter on neutral ground in Fiji, and were also held to two draws, one of which was at home to the Sharks.

What exactly can the Highlanders take from those defeats and draws then?

If we're being honest, not much. There were few clear similarities across each of the contests, so the Highlanders may best be served by playing in the same vein as fellow New Zealanders, the Chiefs.

They certainly won't want to concede the same 20-point start the Chiefs afforded the Crusaders in Fiji, and the conditions will be far colder, but if the Highlanders can somehow withstand what will surely be a confident home attack early they may be able to respond with some enterprising play of their own.

They are boosted by the return of fullback Ben Smith, who was originally thought to have played his last game when injury struck during a thrilling 31-all draw against the Chiefs in Dunedin some seven weeks ago. But 'Bender' is back and his return certainly adds an extra edge to the Highlanders' attack.

So, too, has Liam Squire.

The All Blacks back-rower had many wondering whether he'd be seen in Super Rugby at all this season, but Squire's value to both the Highlanders and New Zealand has been instantly evident in the past two weeks; when combined with Smith's presence, it makes you think the $1.15 price is just a little short.

Then again, the Highlanders are meeting the strongest Crusaders side that has run out all season, and one driven by the chance to farewell veterans Kieran Read, Owen Franks and Ryan Crotty in the most supreme fashion possible: Treble champions.

Verdict: You should expect the Highlanders to make a game of this, and there might just be a few nervy moments for the home fans; more than they're used to, anyway. But there is just that little extra smattering of All Blacks class in the Crusaders squad, and when you consider the players they can bring off their bench -- Luke Romano, Jordan Taufua, Braydon Ennor and co. -- their home record begins to speak for itself. Crusaders by 11.

Jaguares vs. Chiefs, Estadio Jose Amalfatini, Buenos Aires, 8.05 a.m., Saturday

The Jaguares have made phenomenal progress this season after making the playoffs for the first time last year, to such a point that they're fancied strongly by many to make the Super Rugby final -- and likely give the Crusaders a tough fixture. That's a mite presumptuous, though...

That widespread presumption is based on the impressive manner in which they finished the home-and-away season, winning their past five matches and nine of their past 10 while managing the rotational demands of the Pumas-heavy squad. To think we all wondered ahead of the season how they might cover the loss of Nicolas Sanchez; they have done so easily, not by tweaking their attacking game plan but by giving other players increased responsibility -- which said players have accepted gleefully.

The presumption also figures they will defeat the Chiefs in this quarterfinal at Estadio Jose Amalfitano in Buenos Aires this weekend; and that is a dangerous assumption to make because the Chiefs have been superb in their past two games.

The Chiefs may have made the playoffs through the back door last week, but they did not squeeze in; more they barged into the room with a 59-8 destruction of the Rebels in Melbourne, their performance leaving neutrals hoping and praying they held on to the spot they'd grabbed in such devastatingly brilliant fashion. Two weeks earlier, the Chiefs has stunned the Crusaders in Fiji, winning 40-27 having trailed 20-0 after 21 minutes; if they get on a similar buzzsaw roll in Argentina, as they did in Melbourne, the Jaguares might not have the ability to cope.

The Chiefs also return to Buenos Aires with confidence that they can get the job done in Argentina, having defeated the Jaguares 30-27 in March, when replacement scrum-half Te Toiroa Tahuriorangi scored a last-gasp try, converted by Damian McKenzie to claim the win; amazing to think the Jaguares then were bottom of the South African conference, but they then won all but one of their subsequent fixtures.

It's hard to be dogmatic about this game, other than to say it should feature plenty of phases and the ball will see plenty of air given the strike power of the outside backs on either side.

Statistically, there is little in it, although the Jaguares do have an Achilles heel in their discipline: Only the Sunwolves conceded more penalties this season, and no one conceded more penalty goal attempts (42). The Chiefs don't have a great kicking record this season (72%), but it's fair to say they are likely to get opportunities here.

Verdict: Both teams have substantial momentum ahead of this fixture, but the Jaguares have the crucial homefield advantage; the fans are likely to make this a real cauldron, and the Chiefs will need all the experience of All Blacks Brodie Retallick, Sam Cane and Anton Lienert-Brown if they are to progress. The Jaguares seem to have the more rounded team, and possess a more even game plan, however, and crucially, after last year, they now have experience of finals football. Jaguares by 11.

Hurricanes vs. Bulls, Westpac Stadium, Wellington, 5.35 p.m., Saturday

The Hurricanes are overwhelming favourites to win at Westpac Stadium, especially as they compiled the second-best win-loss record through the home-and-away season for 53 points on the overall ladder.

They actually won one more game than did the Crusaders, while losing one more and drawing two less, and they were second to the Christchurch-based team basically only on try-scoring bonus points.

The Canes are at full strength after fielding a virtual B-team against the Blues last week, with Wes Goosen also returning from his hamstring issue, and assistant coach Jason Holland said this week that they would draw confidence from their convincing recent victories against the Sharks and Lions in South Africa.

"We had a pretty good plan when we went to Africa a couple of weeks ago and it worked," he said. "We'll look to pull the positives out of what we did over there and apply them to the Bulls."

The Canes do the Bulls a disservice if they focus too hard on the visitors' "power game", however.

Much as the Bulls are stereotypically South African in outlook and game plan, they have also produced sensational front-foot 15-man rugby on occasion this season -- most recently when dishing up the Lions by seven tries to two last week.

Their forwards to a man were sensational at Loftus Versfeld -- with specific praise for R.G. Snyman, Marco van Staden and Hanro Liebenberg -- while Handre Pollard had the backline humming in a swift, flatline attack that afforded space and opportunity out wide for Rosko Specman, Cornal Hendricks and Warrick Gelant.

And that backline will be much stronger for the inclusion of Jesse Kriel for the first time since April; the Springboks star was in career-best form before sustaining an ankle injury that required surgery, but he said this week that he felt "sharp" and "ready to go". Burger Odendaal is a significant absence, for his ability to straighten the attack, but Johnny Kotze will offer a different threat.

For all that, the lineout shapes to be critical in this fixture, for the Bulls had the best set-piece in terms of "success rate" through the home-and-away season, the Hurricanes the worst, per Sanzaar stats. The Canes' lineout woes were also key when the Jaguares became the first non-New Zealand team to defeat them in Wellington since 2015; the Hurricanes' discipline also failed them that day, and they were beaten far more convincingly than the 20-28 scoreline suggests.

The Bulls, then, may look to that Jaguares fixture in Wellington for their blueprint.

And in Pollard -- who has scored more points than any other player this season, primarily through his kicking -- they have the man to land goals if the Canes' discipline fails, and to go tactically for touch; and they are likely to see every lineout as an opportunity for cheap possession.

The Bulls could easily pull off a shock if their hosts cannot compete at the lineout.

Verdict: The Hurricanes have won three of the past four matches between the teams, but the 21-game historical ledger is more even - with the New Zealanders leading 11-10. Interestingly 12 of the wins were achieved by the away team, with the Bulls winning four in Wellington up to 2011, since when they have visited just once for a five-point defeat in 2014. Both teams will fancy the other shapes well for them, but preference is for the Hurricanes primarily because of their homefield advantage. The Bulls arrived only on Tuesday having flown from New Zealand to South Africa and back again inside 10 days, and the "travel factor" could prove crucial in the final quarter. Hurricanes by five.

Brumbies vs. Sharks, GIO Stadium, Canberra, 8.05pm, Saturday

As was the case with the Jaguares and the Chiefs, the Brumbies' start to the season was anything but impressive. Having lost four of their first six games, the last of which was a horror showing in Brisbane against the Reds, there were more than just a few pundits ready to wipe them from playoff calculations.

But perhaps more should have been made of their irresistible Round 2 win over the Chiefs, and the rolling maul juggernaut that was built through the middle of the season; the strike weapons of a strong side were clearly there, the Brumbies just had to fill in the gaps around them.

And so they did, using the unflattering narrative that surrounded their maul as motivation to kick-start a winning run that now sits at six straight games. The Brumbies' game plan is now in complete harmony with itself, and that was no clearer than when they absorbed early pressure against the Waratahs in Sydney a fortnight ago, then quickly built a 28-3 as if they hadn't been under the cosh at all.

Coach Dan McKellar was able to freshen up a few of his troops last week, but he has returned to his strongest available line-up -- with Pete Samu, Tom Cusack, Henry Speight and Henry Speight all named to face the Sharks.

There was no regular-season game between these two sides, but the form guide between other Australian and South African franchises makes for interesting reading. The Brumbies won all three of their games against South African opposition, with their only cross-conference loss coming away to the Jaguares.

The Sharks, meanwhile, beat the Waratahs in Sydney and Rebels at home in Durban but were also beaten by the Reds at the same venue; make of that what you will.

The Sharks are without a couple of key forwards but have regained young playmaker Curwin Bosch, who starts in the No. 15 jersey after missing the last-gasp win over the Stormers that secured postseason rugby.

The South Africans have lost their last five playoff matches away from home, but they do at least have some history on their side with a win over the Reds in Australia in 2012 -- their last successful playoff effort outside the Republic.

Still, it looks a mighty task, particularly given they were well beaten away in Buenos Aires a fortnight ago and needed an 81st-minute try to edge the Stormers in Cape Town last week.

Verdict: The Sharks have the game to frustrate the Brumbies, and they will be content building their points tally in blocks of three, meaning the hosts will want to watch their discipline and not give Bosch the chance to call for the kicking tee too often. But the visitors lack genuine strike weapons, and they probably won't trouble the Brumbies too much defensively. If the hosts can absorb what may be a dour early sequence, and not sink to the Sharks' level, they should have too many attacking aces up their sleeve not to progress to the semifinals. Brumbies by 7.