Who will clinch last Super Rugby finals spot?
The Crusaders' Robbie Fruean scores a try against the Waratahs during round 10 of their Super Rugby match in Sydney on Sunday, April 29, 2012. (AAP Image/Paul Miller)
The Super Rugby season has been put on hold by the June international fixtures.
This break is great for the second and third placed teams in each conference to get the calculator out and make ridiculous mathematical equations which would see their sides play finals at the end of July.
But with such a log-jam in the middle of the Super Rugby table, the mystery still remains: who will clinch the final wildcard spot in the Super Rugby finals?
With three weeks to go there are four teams on the cusp of the last spot in the finals.
Currently, the Hurricanes hold the final wildcard spot on 45 points with the Sharks, Highlanders and Reds all two points adrift of the Wellington based franchise.
The competition uses a conference format, with the teams broken into an Australian, New Zealand or South African conference depending on their nation.
The teams which finish at the top of each conference automatically qualify for the finals.
The three ‘wildcard’ spots are formed by the teams who finish with the highest aggregate points of the remaining teams.
The Stormers (58), Chiefs (54) and Brumbies (49) will automatically qualify as they will finish on top of their nation’s conferences. But the Crusaders (51), Bulls (45) and Hurricanes (45) have a nervous last three weeks as they try and hold their current wildcard spots.
There are some crucial matches in the final three weeks, which will be instrumental in determining who progresses to the Super Rugby finals:
The Crusaders will face the Hurricanes in a battle of New Zealand wildcards; the Crusaders have one foot in the door of the finals series and a loss for the Hurricanes may push them out of the top six.
The Highlanders will play the Chiefs in a game that is pivotal to the Highlanders finals hopes. A strong showing by the Dunedin side will bring back some belief as they will enjoy the underdog tag.
The Crusaders face the Chiefs; a victory for the Crusaders will all but seal a finals spot for the Canterbury side and give them momentum if they face the Chiefs later in the finals.
Arguably South Africa’s biggest rivalry, Sharks versus Bulls. A victory for the Sharks will strengthen their claims as a finals contender and provide them with much needed bragging rights against their rivals.
The Reds against the Highlanders is a crunch game for both sides, the loser could lose touch with the top six.
The Hurricanes face the Chiefs; the Hurricanes need to win if they are to make the finals and prove to be a contender once they are there. Highlanders bye.
All three New Zealand contenders will have to face conference leaders the Chiefs.
Although it may put a dent in their finals aspirations, it could also prove to be invaluable come finals time.
The bye at this time is a positive and negative. It’s a positive because the team are guaranteed a much needed four points.
But the team loses the opportunity to gain bonus points will be vital for teams challenging for the top six.
On paper matches simulated with the team who is placed higher on the table winning the game (no bonus points), the final three spots would go to the Crusaders, Bulls and Sharks, nudging the Hurricanes out of the six with both the Reds and Highlanders also missing out.
Rugby matches aren’t won on paper, which will make the final three weeks very interesting.
Injuries have already and will continue to have a bearing on the Super Rugby finals make up.
Hurricanes halfback TJ Perenara, Reds captain James Horwill and Highlanders loose-forward Doug Tietjens will be notable omissions from their sides end-of-season charges.
So based on the draw, injuries and each team’s current predicament, one believes the Sharks will clinch the final spot in the top six and advance to the Super Rugby finals.