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Though the weekend’s results were better for tipsters – and me, specifically – Round 8 also proved that the competition among the mid-table teams is only going to get hotter as the season goes on.
Whereas in recent seasons there was a fairly apparent gap between teams in the top half and the bottom half of the table and not a lot of overlap, the up-and-down nature of mid-tier teams in 2018 highlights how competitive things have become.
The Super Rugby season runs for 19 rounds, officially, though Round 1 was solely to allow the South African conference to start early, while Round 16 immediately after the June International window is for the Australian and New Zealand conferences only. Effectively, the season is 18 rounds, before three weeks of playoffs.
And that means that with Round 9 to come this weekend, we are rapidly approaching the mid-point of the season already, despite it being just the second week of April. Yes, it’s true the draw has its vagaries in 2018, as Geoff Parkes so expertly pointed out yesterday, and it’s also true that we’re now beginning to enter the trans-Tasman element of the season.
But we have already seen enough cross-conference rugby to know that teams in the middle of the table are going to be battling it out and taking points off each other for the remainder of the season.
If you follow me on Twitter, you might have noticed the updated conference table posts I’ve put out most weeks, which tie into an overall table for the purposes of tracking the wildcards – the next five best teams that will qualify for the playoffs behind the three conference leaders.
These tables are pretty much self-generated; I keep tally of results (and try-scorers, and goal-kickers, and cards) and because I love a good spreadsheet, those results fuel my updated combined table.
It turns out that I’d sent these updated tables around every weekend except the Easter weekend, which was Round 7. And that week-to-week history of the tables has allowed me to plot the table movements over the past rounds. It’s created an interesting illustration of each conference, and indeed, the battle for the wildcard spots.
(A quick caveat here: I’ve not included the South African-only Round 1 in this exercise, nor have I gone back and tried to work out where each team was placed in Round 7. It’s a reasonable sample size to see movements.)
In New Zealand, the Crusaders are yet to have a bye and have been pretty consistently on top of the conference, only strengthened by wins in Johannesburg and Buenos Aires. Similarly, the Blues have disappointingly battled to take the next step so many of us thought they might in 2018. In between, the Hurricanes, Chiefs, and Highlanders are all over the place.
Australia has been reasonably clear. The Melbourne Rebels have led from the outset, while the Sunwolves have been propping up the table since Round 3. The Waratahs have been ahead of the Brumbies since that same time, though the Queensland Reds jumped above them both for three weeks.
Similarly South Africa; The Lions have enjoyed a healthy gap on top of the conference, with their current gap nearly three full wins better than the Sharks in second place. The Sharks and Stormers has been swapping places regularly, while the Bulls have quickly dropped down toward the frustrating and untippable Jaguares.
When you ram the conferences together, the mid-table battle becomes more pronounced. Lines which had simple rises falls within the conference environment suddenly take more violent upward and downward turns. Teams are swapping position all over the place, and the real impact of a loss becomes much more apparent.
Note, the for the purposes of the highlighting the mid-table battle for the wildcard places, I’ve left the three conference leaders out, though you’ll note both the highlanders and Hurricanes had brief stops at third place over all. Similarly, I’ve left the consistently ordinary Sunwolves, and consistently inconsistent Blues and Jaguares out too.
Three things stand out to me immediately, though you’ll likely have different observations again: the Chiefs are tracking nicely nearing the mid-point, having started a bit slowly; the dramatic decline of the Bulls, and the rapid rise and fall of the Reds.
There’s two distinct groups within this middle pack of nine teams I’ve highlighted here. The Hurricanes (23 points), Chiefs (21) and Waratahs (19) are separated by just one win in the first three wildcard places. It’s worth making mention of the Crusaders and Rebels here, too; both conference leaders are currently only one point ahead of the Hurricanes and Waratahs, respectively. Clearly, the conference lead is a long way from sorted in New Zealand and Australia at the very least.
Behind the Waratahs, the Highlanders and Brumbies are the first of three teams on 14 points, though both have one more win and games or a game in hand over the Sharks in ninth overall. The Reds and Stormers follow these three teams, both on 13 points and also from three wins.
The Bulls sit a further four points back in 12th overall – and they are admittedly only a point ahead of the Jaguares, and two above the Blues, who I omitted. But you tell me, can honestly see either of those sides challenging for a wildcard spot?
I can’t, and I suspect a few more of the teams I have included will drop out in the coming rounds anyway.
Until then, though, there’s plenty of positional changes to get ready for, and there’s four of the six Round 9 teams that will have a direct impact on this mid-table group of nine teams.
The Hurricanes and Chiefs will take points off each other in Wellington. The Highlanders and Brumbies will do the same in Dunedin. And ditto, the Waratahs and Reds at the Sydney Cricket Ground, and the Sharks and Bulls in Durban.
It doesn’t take much to find fault with Super Rugby; we all know that. But it doesn’t take much to find exciting contests in any given round, either. That’s still worth enjoying, I reckon.