With only two rounds of the Super Rugby left before the knock stages, RW assess the permutations and likely outcomes
By Alex Shaw
To coin a phrase from legendary former Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson, it’s squeaky bum time in Super Rugby.
With just two rounds of regular season games left to play, teams from all over the southern hemisphere are jockeying for position in the imminent playoffs. With the new conference system that has been brought in as a result of teams from Japan and Argentina being added to the competition, there is plenty still to play for, particularly in Australasia.
In South Africa, the winners of the Africa 1 and 2 conferences have been decided. The Stormers top Africa 1 with 41 points and though mathematically the Bulls, who sit in second with 32 points, could catch them, it’s extremely unlikely. The Stormers finish up their season with games away to Western Force and at home to the Kings and given the form they are in, it’s safe to say that they will pick up at least one win and secure Africa 1. In fact, they don’t even need a win, a draw or two losing bonus points would do it.
The Lions, meanwhile, have wrapped up Africa 2 with two games left to play, sitting pretty at the top with a competition-high 47 points and the Sharks, on 35 points and second in Africa 2, are unable to catch them.
There is, however, one wildcard spot up for grabs across the two African conferences and that will be hotly contested by the Bulls and Sharks. The Sharks take a three-point advantage into the final two rounds, where they will welcome the Cheetahs and Sunwolves to Durban. The Bulls face the same opposition, first hosting the Sunwolves before heading to Bloemfontein to take on the Cheetahs. The Sharks will be favourites for the wildcard as a result, with the Bulls hoping that one of the two teams can upset the odds and beat the Sharks in Durban. Based on the form of the Cheetahs and Sunwolves this season, it’s a fairly forlorn hope for those in Pretoria.
The Stormers and Lions have been comfortably the best two teams in South Africa this season and by wrapping up their respective conferences, have secured themselves home quarter-finals in the playoffs. Trying to discern which of the New Zealand and Australian sides will join them, however, is a much trickier prospect.
The New Zealand conference is particularly hard to read. The Chiefs currently sit atop the conference with 46 points, whilst the Crusaders, Hurricanes and Highlanders are all hot on their heels, with 45, 44 and 43 points respectively. Those three chasing sides all currently sit in wildcard spots and as a result, only the Brumbies, who top the Australian conference with 39 points, would make the playoffs from Australia. The Waratahs also have 39 points, but the Brumbies take the spot as stands by the virtue of having more wins than their rivals from Sydney.
Confused yet? If not, these permutations of how things may end up might just tip you over the edge.
This week the Chiefs head to Queensland to take on the Reds and the Brumbies head to Auckland to meet the Blues. Both games are winnable for the conference leaders but they will be challenging to say the least. Elsewhere, the Crusaders host the Rebels, the Highlanders travel to Argentina to play the Jaguares and the Waratahs and Hurricanes meet in Sydney in a game that could all but end the Australian side’s season. A loss for the ‘Tahs to the Hurricanes and a Brumbies win in Auckland would be a nail in the coffin for Daryl Gibson’s men.
Then, heading into the final week, there are a plethora of potentially winner-takes-all fixtures, including two mouth-watering New Zealand derbies. The Highlanders host the Chiefs and the Crusaders meet with the Hurricanes in Christchurch, with all four teams potentially still being in a position to top the conference. With home advantage in both of their final fixtures (Rebels and Hurricanes), the Crusaders are a strong candidate to emerge atop the conference log when all is said and done.
As for the Australian sides, the Brumbies will welcome the Force to Canberra in a match they will be hopeful of securing at least four points, whilst the Waratahs will head to New Zealand to meet the Blues. Given the form of the Kiwi franchises this season and the fact the Waratahs finish up their season facing two of them, including one in New Zealand, they will be hard-pressed to usurp the Brumbies atop the Australian conference and, somewhat counter-intuitively, even more hard-pressed to overtake one of the chasing New Zealand pack in the wildcard spots.
If the season finished today, the quarter-finals would look thus.
Lions vs Sharks
Chiefs vs Highlanders
Stormers vs Hurricanes
Brumbies vs Crusaders
Only the Waratahs and Bulls are mathematically capable of breaking into that selection of eight and even then, it would require teams above them to slip up. The Waratahs’ fate is in their own hands, within reason, as a bonus point win over the Hurricanes this week would bring them level with the Kiwi side on points. They would also be level on wins but the Australians would move above the Wellington side on the overall ladder due to a superior points difference, which is the third separator in Super Rugby after points and wins.
The Bulls have no such opportunity to beat a team above them in the standings and they are completely reliant on the Sharks slipping up or the Stormers having an unprecedented meltdown.
Whilst the ‘Tahs will continue to scrap for top spot in the Australian conference and/or a wildcard slot, the most compelling aspect of the next two weeks could well be the race between the four Kiwi sides for top spot in the New Zealand conference and the much-coveted home quarter-final.
The fixture list favours the Crusaders and if they can avoid an away quarter-final, it will take a brave man to bet against them lifting their eighth Super Rugby title and first since 2008.
Whatever the permutations may be heading into the final weekend, the fact all four of these New Zealand teams meet each other should offer an enthralling spectacle. Mark it in your diaries now.