The end of the first season of conference rugby is close at hand, and questions remain as to whether an Australian team can win the championship.
At the top end of the draw, the Reds have the easiest run home – the Force in Perth followed by the Chiefs away, and they would be expected to earn maximum points and secure a win.
The Chiefs could add some misery to the lead up to the finals for the Reds, but a bloody nose before the finals may not be a bad thing.
The Reds are certainties to win the Australian conference, expecting at least four points from their next two matches. I rate the Reds a four in four chance of beating the Force, and a three in four chance of beating the Chiefs.
End of season rating – 65 points in first place.
The Tahs have been disappointing, with early results and creative rugby the highlights in what can only be described as an inconsistent year. They are fortunate to have one of the easier runs home – playing the Highlanders and Brumbies at home.
The Highlanders are the other side that will have left their fans bitterly disappointed this year. After a great start to the season they have lost three straight and need to play with the fire they had a month ago if they are any mathematical chance of making the finals.
The Brumbies will be looking for another scalp after a disastrous year, and will be certain to turn up to play. With so many players leaving the team after this match, this will be a final opportunity to demonstrate their abilities before the Tri Nations.
The Tahs cannot underestimate either opponent, as both have something to prove to their loyal fans. Stating the obvious, both matches are sudden death. A loss to either side would result in the Tahs season drawing to a flaccid climax. And for a side that has welcomed supporter feedback, the chorus of dissatisfaction if the Tahs fail to deliver this year will make Tony Rea blush.
End of season rating – 52. I rate them a 50 per cent chance of beating the Highlanders and favourites to beat the Brumbies. I expect that the Tahs will finish second in the local conference and seventh overall.
The South African conference has three sides in the top six at present.
The Stormers who have an excellent defensive side are currently second. They also have the easiest run home of the three teams. The Stormers play the Bulls at home and the Cheetahs away. Whilst the Stormers have delivered on their abilities, the Bulls have struggled to impose themselves consistently across the competition.
The Stormers have best percentage of tries for against in the competition, currently running at over 200 per cent, clearly demonstrating the ethos that has seen their side consistently defeat sides.
End of season rating is 63, to finish on top of the local conference and second overall.
I think the Stormers are a 50 per cent chance of beating the Bulls at home, and favourites to defeat the Cheetahs away.
The other South African sides are both strong contenders for the wildcard spots. With both the Tahs and Highlanders capitulating in recent weeks, the door has been left wide open for a South African domination of the finalists.
I consider that both the Sharks and Bulls will maintain their position in the table. The Sharks play the Lions and Bulls and form would suggest that they would expect at least one win to secure a wildcard. I rate the Sharks as favourites to defeat the Lions, and an even money chance of beating the Bulls. End of season rating – 57, in fifth place.
The Bulls have a very tough finish to their season, playing both the Stormers and Sharks. I rate the Bulls an even money chance against both the Stormers and Sharks. End of season rating – 53, in sixth place.
This leaves the Kiwi conference. The Kiwi sides across the board have tough runs, playing each other final contenders to make the semis.
The Crusaders have had an amazing year, considering the turmoil of losing their home ground; and the mental distraction of the earthquakes. As sportsmen they have helped to life their community and demonstrate the many great things about their province and city.
Add the strength of Carter, Thorne and McCaw and the talent of their backline – Fruean and their young wingers, it is pretty obvious you have a team that trusts their instincts and plays as a unit.
The Crusaders have a tough run home, playing the Blues and Hurricanes at home.
I rate the Crusaders a chance of defeating the Blues, and favourites to beat the Canes. End of season rating – 58, securing a wildcard berth into the semis and fourth.
The Blues have to do it all to secure their place at the head of the conference. They play the Crusaders away and the Highlanders at home. Whilst I think the Crusaders match is a coin toss on form, and I would probably tip the Crusaders in the crunch, I think the Blues will defeat the Highlanders.
I rate the Blues a chance against the Crusaders, and favourites against the Highlanders.
End of season rating – 60, winning the conference and finishing third overall. But, in reality, I expect that the winner of the Crusaders match and finish on top of the conference.
The Highlanders have unfortunately drawn the tough draw. Tahs and Blues, when they needed an easier run home to compete with the other conference sides.
I rate the Highlanders a chance against the Tahs, but less so against the Blues. End of season rating – 48, in eighth place.