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Tracking the conference and wildcard table movement this season has been fascinating, and you’ll recall last month heading into Round 9 that I first flagged the intriguing battle that was looming around the middle of the Super Rugby standings.
Since then, the race has only got hotter.
The 2018 season is unique in its make-up. We’ve had 15 teams in Super Rugby before, and we’ve had conferences feeding eight-team finals series before, but we’ve never had 15 teams feeding into a final eight.
When Super Rugby last played as a 15-team competition in 2015, we had three conferences feeding a six-team finals, and even going back to the last season of Super 14 in 2010, the first week of the finals were straight knock-out semi-finals.
What has been reasonably consistent since 2011, however, has been a regular season of either 15 or 16 games, just as all teams will again play 16 teams in 2018.
And in seasons of 15 or 16 games, teams have needed at least nine and generally ten wins to reach the finals.
I say ‘generally’ very deliberately. In 2011, the Bulls missed the playoffs with ten wins. The Brumbies and Hurricanes did the same thing in 2012. In 2014, the Western Force finished with nine wins, but missed the finals to the Chiefs and Highlanders, who both got through with eight wins and excellent bonus point tallies.
Nine wins was enough for the Brumbies in 2015, but not the Crusaders, and the Bulls again missed out with nine wins in 2016.
So in 2018, teams will need ten wins to be safe, but nine wins and bonus points could get you there in this first season of 15 teams feeding eight playoff spots.
With six rounds to play – and only five for the South Africans, who won’t play at all in Round 16 – it means we can very safely rule out the current bottom four teams: the Reds, Blues, Brumbies and Sunwolves.
Of those four teams, the Reds on 17 points *could* win all six games and finish with ten wins. ‘Could’, in theory. In reality, four of those six games are against current top eight sides, with games against the Blues and their weekend conquerors, the Sunwolves to come.
At the top end of the table, there is now a six-point gap between the Chiefs in sixth and the Rebels in seventh, meaning the top six looks pretty set, but for one possible change that needs to be considered. The current top six comprises the Crusaders, Lions, Waratahs, Hurricanes, and the Highlanders one point above the Chiefs.
Between that top grouping and the bottom four, there are five teams – the Rebels, Jaguares, Bulls, Sharks, and Stormers – within two points of each other, and all of them with decent claims for the final two wildcard spots.
This is where the action is for the run home.
The Rebels, fresh from their 79th-minute win over the Brumbies courtesy of Reece Hodge’s clutch penalty, have a bye this weekend, and then face a Brave Blossoms June squad-weakened Sunwolves and the Blues in Auckland before the international break.
After the break, it’s the Waratahs in Melbourne, and the Reds and Highlanders away to finish. To get to ten wins, they’d need to win all five games. Four wins and at least two bonus points could put them in the mix as well.
The Jaguares, like all the South African sides, will have a week off in Round 16 – the Republic started Super Rugby a week early, so they’ll break a week early for the internationals – and are also fully intra-conference from here on. They face the Bulls and Sharks before the break, and then the Stormer after it, all in Buenos Aires. Win those three – and they certainly can – would give them nine wins, meaning they might only need to win one of their return legs against the Bulls and Sharks to qualify.
The Bulls have been as high as second in the conference, and as low as fifth, all in the last month. At the peak, they’d snuck into eighth overall. They have the Jaguares in Argentina this weekend, then the Brumbies back at Loftus before the break. After it, it’s the Sunwolves in Singapore, the Jaguares back at Loftus, and the Lions in Johannesburg to finish. With five wins now, they need to win all five to get to ten wins. Problem is, there’s a couple of tricky games in that lot.
The Sharks’ issue is that with only four wins and a draw now, they cannot get to ten wins. They would need to win all five remaining games just to get to nine, so bonus points will become crucial. They face the Chiefs in Durban this week, then head to Buenos Aires to face the Jaguares. After June, it’s the Lions at home, the Stormers at Newlands, and the Jaguares back in Durban. I’d be nervous if I were a Sharkie.
And having played twelve games, I’d also be nervous if I were a Stormer. They’re yet to win away from Cape Town, even lost there to the Chiefs on Saturday, and now must trek to Hong Kong to play the Sunwolves brimming with confidence and keen to take some form into the June Test camp. Then it’s the Lions back at Newlands. After the break, it’s the Jaguares in BA, then the Sharks back in Cape Town before another bye. Four wins would get them to ten wins overall, but the question is, is there four wins there?
The other consideration in all this is the Waratahs, who sit only one point above the Rebels on top of the Australian conference with the same number of wins, a much better points differential, one fewer bonus point, but with the slight advantage of their earlier draw against the Sharks.
The Tahs don’t have the worst run home though: the Highlanders in Sydney this Saturday night, then the Chiefs and Reds both away before the June Tests. On the resumption, it’s the Rebels in Melbourne, and home games against the Brumbies and Sunwolves to finish. Four wins in that six would get them to nine wins, but if they’re good enough they should win at least that many. The Rebels game probably decides the conference.
The eight-team finals series in a 15-team competition has been criticised in some circles, but a condensed mid-table set like this with so many teams eyeing off not many playoff spots will make the run home really exciting.
Next week, I’ll lay down some predictions and try and nut out who does and doesn’t make the playoffs.