Warren Gatland is returning to his New Zealand roots after signing a four-year Super Rugby head coach deal with the Chiefs that allows him to fulfil his British and Irish Lions duties.
For weeks now, the refrain from the pundits has been, “This is the most even Super 14 competition ever, the coming weekend’s matches are crucial.” Last Friday, in a moment of clarity, I realised that last weekend’s matches really could have settled everything.
What was my reasoning and was I correct?
Firstly, I realized that two teams at the top of the table and in very strong form, the Hurricanes and Bulls, were hosting hot-and-cold contenders just outside the top four, the Blues and Western Force respectively.
So on the basis of form and home-ground advantage, it seemed reasonable to conclude that the Hurricanes and Bulls would consolidate their positions in the top four and end the chances of the teams from Auckland and Perth.
Similarly, it always seemed likely that the Sharks, at home to the admirable but limited Highlanders, would consolidate their position.
Then there was a series of matches featuring top four contenders away from home against teams mostly in good form: Waratahs against the Cheetahs, who had just beaten the Crusaders; the Chiefs against the Stormers, who had just had a good win in Dunedin; the Brumbies against Queensland, who were coming off a top-class triumph in Auckland; and the Crusaders in Johannesburg.
Given the law of averages, and the well-known advantages of playing at home, it seemed a reasonable bet that there would only be one or two away wins in these four matches. This would leave the winner(s) well placed to make the top four and the losers either out of the running or struggling.
As it turns out, all four of these potentially decisive matches were won by the away team, in three cases in emphatic, bonus-point fashion.
This, incidentally, suggests that psychologists may well be correct when they state that home-ground advantage is almost entirely a mental phenomenon: the away team accepts that defeat away from one’s home fans is tolerable, while vice versa for the home team.
In the above cases, the away teams knew that defeat was intolerable, and they played accordingly.
Whatever, the result of all these away wins is that my moment of clarity did not come to fruition, and we still have a log jam.
Here are table positions and remaining matches for teams in contention:
1. Hurricanes (39 points): Chiefs (away), Reds (home)
2. Chiefs (37 points): Hurricanes (home), Brumbies (home)
3. Bulls (37 points): Cheetahs (home), Sharks (away)
4. Sharks (35 points): NSW (home), Bulls (home)
5. NSW (32 points): Sharks (away), Lions (away)
6. Crusaders (32 points): Reds (home), Blues (away)
7. Brumbies (32 points): Blues (home), Chiefs (away)
8. Blues (31 points): Brumbies (away), Crusaders (home)
Several things stand out about this situation:
1. Of the top four teams, only the Hurricanes and Bulls are to face what can be considered a relatively easy opponent, the Reds and the Cheetahs respectively. Thus, they can be regarded as top four certainties and top two probables.
2. Chiefs Vs Hurricanes and Sharks Vs Bulls are intra-country, intra-top four, blockbuster clashes that will be decisive in determining positions in the top four.
Because there can only be one winner in each of these matches, they make it highly likely that the top two at the end of the competition will consist of a New Zealand and a South African team (most likely the Hurricanes and Bulls), and thus that the final will be a New Zealand-South Africa affair.
3. Of the top four teams, the Sharks are the most vulnerable.
Yes, they are at home, but they have difficult opponents, their form has been very ordinary for a month, and they have lost half their backline to injury (Jacobs, Steyn) and suspension (Kockott).
4. The Brumbies and Blues are coming from furthest behind, have difficult draws, and are showing inconsistent form. So they are unlikely to make the top four.
5. Most likely to supplant the Sharks in the top four are the Waratahs and the Crusaders. And, of these, two the Crusaders are the more likely, because they at least have a match that can be considered relatively easy to win, hosting the injury-ravaged, lowly Reds.
6. Sharks Vs Waratahs is a pivotal match, not just for both teams, but also for the Crusaders. An irony is that the Waratahs winning this match might end up enabling the Crusaders to make the top four instead.
Here are some tips:
1. The Hurricanes and Bulls will win both their remaining matches and finish as the top two
2. The Chiefs will beat the Brumbies, who are poor travellers to New Zealand, and thereby finish third
3. The Sharks or the Crusaders or Waratahs will finish fourth, but I cannot foresee which team it will be
4. The best tip of all: not all my tips will be correct!
Bearing in mind the above constraints, what are Roar readers tipping?