The scorelines and the margins and the fact that 60 per cent of The Roar‘s tipping panel picked perfect rounds tells us it was a pretty predictable Round 11. And even those of us unfortunate enough to get a tip wrong will concede it wasn’t that surprising.
When seven of the eight games featured teams with a distinct table position advantage over their opponents, it wasn’t difficult to see it coming. And the point here is that over the remaining six rounds between now and the finals, we’re going to see more of these predictable rounds.
The reason for this is simple: the top eight is set already.
As it stands after the completion of Round 11, there’s now a two-win and eight-point gap between the top eight sides and Blues and Jaguares, the next best sides trailing.
And yes, by ‘top eight’ I mean the eight teams in playoff positions. Regardless of your thoughts on the conference system, no amount of debate is going to change the format this season.
The four conference winners and four wildcard qualifiers will take part in the playoffs, and for the purpose of this exercise will be referred to as the top eight. And they’ve opened up a gap. There is, of course, one exception to this, but I’ll come back to the Australian conference shortly.
In New Zealand, the Crusaders, Chiefs and Hurricanes standout as genuine contenders for the title.
The Crusaders remain unbeaten, and if they haven’t lost a game by now, it makes you wonder if they’ll drop one at all. The Chiefs and Hurricanes are probably one step behind them, but that probably won’t matter in the grand scheme of things, because if we’ve learnt one thing about the New Zealand sides over the last few seasons it’s that they can beat anyone, anywhere, including themselves.
The Highlanders are currently very up and down, but have two distinct advantages over the Blues – two wins and six points.
The wins part of the equation is particularly important, because if the Blues managed to close the points gap, the number of wins is the first step in the tie-breaking process. The Blues don’t have a bad run home, but neither do the Highlanders, and neither side has to worry about being overtaken by the next-best Australian side, with the Waratahs three wins behind the Blues.
In Africa 1, the Stormers, despite four straight losses, sit three wins and 12 points clear of the Bulls, who, frankly, wouldn’t look out of place in the Australian conference. The Stormers have a good run home, too, and will quite likely finish the season further ahead again.
The Lions are ten points clear of the Sharks in Africa 2, and to me, loom as the only team capable of beating one of the New Zealand sides in the final. They’re playing better than they were this time last year and have shown this campaign that winning away from home is something they’ve very capable of.
They’re aided by both a good run home and the very patchy form of the Sharks, and if the Crusaders’ unbeaten run does come to an end, you couldn’t rule out the prospect of the Lions finishing on top overall. They’re capable of winning a final in New Zealand this season, but if they earn an Ellis Park final, they’ll really take some beating.
The Sharks, for all their faults and patchy form, remain two wins clear of the Jaguares; their only mathematical challenger for the one African wildcard spot.
And that brings us to Australia.
Current form suggests that the conference winner is going to be the least worst of the five teams. I said last week that it comes down to the Waratahs or the Brumbies, and nothing over the weekend has changed my mind.
And that’s not because the Waratahs were great; they were far from it. But the Reds could only run with the Chiefs for about 35 minutes, the Force were as mediocre as all of the Sharks bar Curwin Bosch, and the Rebels never looked like troubling the Lions.
The Waratahs would need to win every game from here. The Brumbies need to do the same to have any hope of being competitive in the playoffs, but the Waratahs’ results will determine whether the Brumbies need to win every game to top the conference.
The teams are equal on wins, but the Brumbies hold a significantly better for-and-against record (which is the second tie-breaker step), and the current four-point advantage might just be enough to carry them all the way through to the playoffs.