Following on from the Report Card last week, it seems as good a time as any to map out the run home for the teams definitely and theoretically still in contention for the Super Rugby playoffs.
The short of it is that I think we’ll see minimal change to the current top eight from here on. By my loose predictions, seven of the current top eight will hold on, and five of those are in the positions I think they’ll finish.
Here’s how I’ve reached the conclusions I have, broken down by the trans-Tasman conferences and the African Group.
I did wonder if the current four New Zealand teams in the top eight would all survive, but by my predictions the Hurricanes will do enough now to hold on. What becomes interesting is where the completion points will go with a string of local derbies to finish.
Five very winnable games to come for the Crusaders means that at least 20 competition points are possible between now and second-last weekend of July, which will be more than enough to finish in top spot.
The loss to the Highlanders – even though they didn’t play too badly themselves – will sting, but it will quite possibly work as the ‘loss we had to have’ motivation. Very few evident weaknesses in their game currently, and Israel Dagg’s return just adds another angle of danger for opposing sides.
Only for the fact they have the bye this weekend and only four games to follow do I concede they probably can’t top the New Zealand conference. After a couple of losses they’d rather we didn’t talk about, the Clan have resumed winning in various styles that shows a great adaptability. Then can come up with a plan for any team now, and execute it with precision.
I think they’re the best team in the competition currently, and with a lot of developing parallels to their run to the title last season. The Hurricanes next weekend will be a test, but the last test they faced in Wellington went pretty well for them.
The Chiefs in the final round will be a great warm-up for a back-to-back title tilt, and they’re playing the kind of rugby I expected – and had me stunned that they didn’t start the season favourites.
Also, I’ve had ‘WAAIII-SAK-EE-NAH-HOL-O’ stuck in my head since around 6pm Friday…
Coming off the bye this weekend, the Chiefs also have the advantage of five games over the last five rounds to accrue points. They’re currently ahead of the Highlanders by virtue of a 14-point superior points differential, but I’m not sure that can will last. Sadly, since I opined that they might not lose another game in 2016, they’ve been rather up and down.
And that leaves them a bit vulnerable, though not so vulnerable that they’ll suddenly miss the playoffs or anything. Even with predicted losses to the Crusaders in Fiji, and the Highlanders, a sixth-place finish would pit them against the Stormers in Cape Town in the first week of the playoffs, a task not nearly as frightening as it once was.
They were the team I feared could be in danger, maybe even from a second Australian side, but they should be reasonably safe from here on.
Even with losses as I suspect, firstly this weekend to the Highlanders, and in the final round to the Crusaders, 44 points as a minimum will see them safely take a wildcard spot. Whether they’re good enough to progress to the Semis is up to them.
They’re done. The thumping from the Lions sealed their fate, and with a 12-point gap to the Hurricanes, I can’t see them catching the final trans-Tasman wildcard spot.
And I can’t see them catching the Hurricanes, because they might not win another game. I’ve given them the benefit of significant doubt that they can even beat the Force for this exercise, but their last four games are all against contenders. Pass me the red pen, please.
Kurtley Beale’s injury changes everything. The Waratahs hold a one-point conference lead over the Brumbies going into the wounded Crusaders (the worst kind of Crusaders), and even though the Brumbies are hardly playing with the freedom of their wild namesake, the Tahs will be up against it to hold top spot.
No injury is particularly timely, but Beale’s season-ending knee injury also robs the Waratahs of their primary attacking weapon. With Beale on deck and in the form he was, they would’ve been confident against the Chiefs and Hurricanes in Sydney, but without him, I think they’re left ripe for the picking. Any bonus points they can gain could be crucial, however.
If there’s a silver lining, it’s that other players – and I’m thinking particularly of Bernard Foley and Israel Folau – will be forced to stand up more and lead the attack. Playing out the Super Rugby season without Beale could actually be the making of Folau the outside centre; it will force him to look for and create opportunities himself.
They have the bye this weekend, which might help with some niggly injuries, and then after that, they have four games against bottom-eight teams to follow. Probably only rivalled by the Stormers in terms of unthreatening runs home, and they should take the Australian conference comfortably.
But they aren’t playing brilliantly, and need to rediscover the concept of bonus points with the same urgency that Donald Trump needs to discover humility. While ever they can’t gain bonus points, they leave the door open for the Waratahs to pinch the conference.
Look, they are, for all intents and purposes, done. A loss this weekend to the Chiefs will confirm that. But, if they somehow managed an upset and the ‘Tahs lost to the Crusaders, all while the Brumbies have the bye, then the Rebels could suddenly be within one win. Not impossible, but pretty bloody close to it.
In all likelihood, winning an African conference is going to involve remaining less hopeless than the nearest competitor. Second place overall, the Lions hold a two-point gap over the Sharks in Africa 2, but the form margin is significantly wider than that.
The Stormers and Bulls are separated by three in Africa 1, and they’ve become simultaneously underwhelming, despite playing some really high quality rugby less than a month ago.
They’re the form South African team currently, and I think they’ll win all five game from here to the playoffs. The Bulls in Pretoria, and the return leg against the Jaguares in Buenos Aires stand as the biggest, but not insurmountable hurdles; wins in both games would only confirm the Lions as the biggest improvers from the Republic in recent seasons.
They really did deserve a loss in Singapore, and if it wasn’t for Pieter-Steph du Toit, they may well have. I was enjoying the Stormers this season until about a fortnight ago, but the bye in Round 11 seems to have sapped them of their spark.
But, they do have a plum ride home, with the Bulls in Pretoria returning after their three-week tour of Australia their only real hiccup. A win at Loftus this weekend will open up enough of a lead over the Bulls shouldn’t be troubled after that, even with an Australian tour to come after the June Tests.
Sharks They’re eighth now, and eighth they’ll stay, with a loss to the Lions at Ellis Park in Round 15 the only red I see in their future. They should, however, be playing for bonus points, which could be enough to sneak ahead of the Hurricanes, which in turn could be the difference between having to fly to the Christchurch for the first week of the playoffs, or just heading up to Johannesburg.
Just as the Bulls make me reconsider my pre-season thoughts on them (I nearly uttered the ‘w’ word in full!), they revert to type and confirm all suspicions. They’ll give plenty of teams a good physical contest from here on, but without the attacking spark they were starting to show, they won’t beat the top teams with physicality alone.
They’re basically sweating on the Sharks tripping up from here, which with Pat Lambie back on deck, seems unlikely.