It may not actually have been the first time this year, but Round 14 felt like the first time this season where all seven games have been really interesting contests – and in which the result was far from certain well into the second half of each game.
I made the point last week that the mid-table log-jam is going to make for a really exciting run home, and that was borne out across the board over the weekend.
This now has us casting our minds forward to the playoffs, which in theory are only five games away, but in actually fact are still two months away, once we take this increasingly frustrating break for the June International Test window.
So yes, last week, I said that was going to lay down some predictions about the playoffs, and who will and won’t reach them, but in reality, the biggest goal for teams is definitely be in contention as we break for the June Tests.
Teams certainly can’t make the playoffs by June, but they can absolutely drop out of the race by then.
We already know and have known for some time that the bottom four – the Reds, Blues, Brumbies, and Sunwolves – definitely can’t make it. A now six-point gap between the Stormers in 11th and the Reds in 12th only further underlines that these teams are playing for 2019 development and 2018 nuisance value now.
Let’s have a look ahead, to try and work out where teams will be heading into the break.
CRUSADERS – currently first overall: 46 points, 10 wins. Next two weeks: Hurricanes (home), Chiefs (away)
Having now lost Owen Franks to suspension, and with Joe Moody still suspended for another week, the Crusaders actually look a bit vulnerable this week. There’s always an expectation about Crusaders-Hurricanes contests, and after the Crusaders didn’t exactly put the Blues away in the second half on Saturday, this now looms as even more of a danger game than it already was.
My suspicion is the Crusaders drop one to the Hurricanes, but then regain some composure – and a few players – and take down the Chiefs the following week. They’ll take a minimum 50 points into the break, but this will drop them to fourth overall.
LIONS – second: 36 points, 7 wins. Next two weeks: Stormers (a), South African conference bye
The Lions are a curious beast, and are playing now almost nothing like they were at the start of the season. They were no certainty to beat the Brumbies with twenty minutes to go, but regained the lead through their maul against a card-weakened Brumbies pack, and found two more tries late to blow the scoreline out.
They don’t appear to have the same aura about them at the moment, and they’re conceding twice as many tries per game as they did in 2017.
But it still should be enough to take care of the Stormers, who look even more a shadow of the side than what started the season. At least 40 points will still be enough to hold second overall, but two byes to come will bring the Lions back to the chasing pack.
WARATAHS – third: 31 points, 6 wins. Next two weeks: Chiefs (a), Reds (a)
The team with the most to benefit from the Lions’ plateauing is definitely the Waratahs, who finally learned from their mistakes when holding a lead to not just hold the Highlanders off, but properly put them away on Saturday night. The Tahs have showed patches through the season, and have played reasonable rugby over the last few weeks since their bye, but this was the closest they’ve come to a full 80-minute performance.
And it sets them up well. They’re definitely good enough to beat a Chiefs side returning from South Africa, even with their All Blacks contingent rested and waiting, and they’re definitely good enough to take care of the Reds the following week. That would give them 39 points minimum, and they’ll be on the Lions’ tail for a home semi after the break.
HURRICANES – fourth: 45 points, 10 wins. Next two weeks: Crusaders (a), Highlanders (a)
I don’t think there’s a team playing better than the Hurricanes right now, and I don’t think they fear any other team in the competition. They were methodical against the Reds, and even if scoreline suggested that was a close win for the Hurricanes, but I never felt they were any danger of losing.
They might be the only team who can beat the Crusaders in Christchurch, and I think they will this weekend. After that, beating the Highlanders in Dunedin will be a doddle by comparison. A minimum 53 points will see them take the clubhouse lead into the June Tests.
CHIEFS – fifth: 32 points, 7 wins. Next two weeks: Waratahs (h), Crusaders (h)
A bonus point from their loss to the Sharks was enough to draw level with the Highlanders, with their superior points differential pushing them ahead. But they’ve been unconvincing in South Africa and lost to the Jaguares in Hamilton before they left. I think they’re vulnerable, really vulnerable over the next two weeks, and losing bonus points might be the best they can salvage.
32 points would still be enough to hold the final wildcard spot into the break; after that, they play their last games looking over their shoulder.
HIGHLANDERS – sixth: 32 points, 7 wins. Next two weeks: Reds (a), Hurricanes (h)
The South African conference bye next weekend can really help ‘the Clan’. I think they’ll battle to get past the Hurricanes next week, but I also think the genuine fear of being the first New Zealand team in several years to drop two games on the trot to Australian sides will be enough to get them home against the Reds this weekend.
That would get them to at least 36 points, which would be enough to regain fifth overall heading into the break.
JAGUARES – seventh: 29 points, 7 wins. Next two weeks: Sharks (h), conference bye
Undoubtedly the big improvers over the last six weeks, and probably the feel-good story of 2018. Finally, the Jaguares are becoming the team we hoped that would be on admission to Super Rugby. They’ll consolidate their top eight existence over the last month with a win over the Sharks, and if they get a roll on, they could run up a similar score as what they did the Bulls.
33 points at least would push them up to sixth, and if they go on from there, who would be prepared to say they couldn’t cause damage in the playoffs?
SHARKS – eighth: 28 points, 5 wins. Next two weeks: Jaguares (a), conference bye
The Sharks are pretty obviously the next best side in the South African conference after the Lions and Jaguares, but they’ll be no less vulnerable to a thumping in Buenos Aires than anyone right now. They did enough to get on top of the Chiefs, but consistency has been their biggest issue.
The 28 points they have now might be it, and they’d slip out of the eight by the June break, but they’ve been in and out of the eight for the last month anyway.
REBELS – ninth: 25 points, 5 wins. Next two weeks: Sunwolves (h), Blues (a)
Fresh off a bye, the Rebels have a real opportunity to make a move before the break. They weren’t perfect against the Brumbies ten days ago, but they were patient and they were accurate when it mattered most. A Sunwolves side weakened by June Test preparations looms this week, followed by a Blues team yet to win Eden Park, and both games are very winnable for the Rebels.
Do that, and they’ll be on 33 points at least, which would have them seventh.
BULLS – 10th: 24 points, 5 wins. Next two weeks: Brumbies (h), conference bye
The Bulls were disappointing in Argentina on Sunday morning, but you would think they would have enough to reset and topple the Brumbies back at Loftus. And they have to think that, too, because a loss would leave them in real danger of dropping out of the race, with danger games to follow after the break. A win this week pushes them to 28 points, which would keep them in touch. Just.
STORMERS – 11th: 24 points, 5 wins. Next two weeks: Lions (h), conference bye
With a conference bye the week after they host the Lions at Newlands, and another bye after the break, this week will be the week we wish the Stormers all the best for their 2019 preparations. Because I can’t see them beating the Lions this weekend, and even if they won both games after the break (on of them being the Jaguares in Buenos Aires), seven wins won’t be enough.
I’ll be interested to see how close these play out. In the meantime, here’s the overall predictions for the next few weeks, as well as the remaining games for all teams.
And I’ll revisit these coming out of the June International window, where Part 2 will try and establish the final eight.