The Super Rugby season is right down to the wire, and even if there are debates around the finals format, the playoffs loom with much excitement.
But before the playoffs can start, there’s one last regular season round to play out, and there’s plenty of intrigue and playoffs drama left just yet.
Here’s the talking points for Round 17.
What the Waratahs have to do
Win. And win well. Winning with a bonus point will give the Waratahs a little bit of extra insurance, as well as putting more pressure on the Brumbies to rack up a score on Saturday night.
So how do they do that? Well, they have to engage the Blues’ defence. Too often last week, the Brumbies were guilty of playing east-west, rather than north-south, and it allowed the Blues to just slide with the point of attack.
If the ‘Tahs can play flatter at the gain line, and more directly up through the middle, it will force the Blues’ defence to contract, which in turn will open up the space out wide that the Brumbies weren’t able to unlock last week.
The Waratahs should also be looking to force the Blues into a breakdown contest, which neither team will particularly want to do, but it’s the best way of committing more defenders to the ruck and ensuring they can’t just stand off and present a 14-man wall.
And start fast; the Blues are capable of chasing games, but if the ‘Tahs can get out to an early lead – and a handy, two- or three-try lead – then that might just bring unforced errors out of the Blues.
The Waratahs are well capable of this; that’s one plus. But they needed to do the same thing last week against the Hurricanes, and that didn’t go so well.
What the Brumbies have to do
Watch the Waratahs game first and foremost, and then have a very clear plan once the equation becomes known. They may or may not need a bonus point win, but at least they will know that 24 hours early.
Like the Waratahs, the Brumbies need to start well. They cannot afford another slow 50-minute start like they put up last week, because the Force are capable of defending a lead and playing a much better field position game than the Blues did last week.
And they certainly can’t play sideline-to-sideline as they did in Auckland last week, because that would be just playing into the Force’s hands. Christian Lealiifano admitted in Canberra yesterday that they probably did have to do more in attack, and use their set piece and lineout strengths as a base, not their one and only weapon.
“It probably simplifies things, to know we’ve got a really strong platform there of what our strengths are, and that allows us to use our skills as individuals and push the boundaries in attack,” Lealiifano said.
So at least they’re admitting the problem, which is the first step. It’s up to the Brumbies as players and coaches now to prove after last week’s disappointment that they do have the game to compete in the finals series.
Johan Ackermann’s Argentinean tour pro/con list
He’s got some massive balls, the Lions coach, I’ll say that much. If his side was playing the Jaguares at Ellis Park, or any other South African team, for that matter, we probably wouldn’t have batted an eyelid at his decision to rest 15 regular starters. So why did he?
For one thing, I can’t imagine it would’ve been a simple decision. But I can imagine him constructing a list including these points…
PRO: The ‘1st XV’ will be fresh for the home quarter final the following week.
CON: It does open up the window to lose hold of top spot.
PRO: It gives the fringe squad guys a reward for all their hard work.
CON: It runs the risk of upsetting momentum heading to the finals.
PRO: The Jaguares have been very up and down – even in the last two rounds – and this group of guys have plenty of talent.
CON: Talent alone doesn’t win Super Rugby matches. And Currie Cup talent alone certainly doesn’t win Super Rugby matches.
PRO: The resting players won’t have to travel to South America.
CON: The coaches still have to travel to South America. And who creates the game plans?
PRO: The team we play in the quarter final has to come to us.
CON: It could be an in-form New Zealand team, rather than the Sharks – who we’ve beaten twice this season.
Of course, it’s entirely possible that the Lions could lose in Buenos Aires and still hold spot, if the Highlanders and the Hurricanes happen to topple the Chiefs and Crusaders, respectively. In which case Ackermann will look like an absolute genius.
You can get odds of more than $5.30, if you want to have that same punt, and closer to $18 if you fancy the Lion Cubs’ chances.
But you’d need Ackermann-sized kahunas. So good luck with that.
Is there one last New Zealand surprise in store?
The Chiefs and the Crusaders have been swapping the New Zealand conference lead back and forward for the second half of the season, and that’s even happened again since the resumption after the June Tests.
But with the four New Zealand teams within three points of each other, any of them could still take out the conference.
The Highlanders hold a 20-point for-and-against advantage over the Hurricanes, and with both teams on the same number of wins, for-and-against would be the next tie-breaker if they respectively beat the Chiefs and Crusaders.
Could it happen? Well, the Highlanders are certainly capable of beating the Chiefs; they’ve won the last five clashes between the two sides, including in Round 11 this season, and in both Round 16 and the Elimination Final last season. They’d be confident, and with good reason.
But the ‘Canes haven’t faced the Crusaders this year (honestly, what kind of joke format is this?!?), and the two fixtures last season were won by the home team. The Hurricanes haven’t won in Christchurch in more than two years, though, and if the Crusaders prevail, it won’t matter what the Highlanders manage against the Chiefs.
Yet I can’t help but think there’s more twists in the New Zealand conference to come in 2016. And wouldn’t that be something?
…and therefore, who’s the New Zealand favourite?
If the final series started this weekend – would the Chiefs genuinely be the favourites to win the comp of the four New Zealand team?
If the Highlanders finished top spot, would they automatically assume the mantle?
Do the Hurricanes have to top the New Zealand conference to be any chance of avenging last year’s Final result?
Are the Crusaders the best equipped team to win in South Africa if it comes to it?
And do these questions have different answers next week, if there is one last New Zealand conference twist?
I’m sorry to finish with a load of questions, but among all the talk of how good the four Kiwi teams are going, I don’t think I’ve seen anyone so bold to install a favourite.
And I’m blown if I can, so it’s over to you guys!
Enjoy the last round of Super Rugby.