The Wallabies’ depth has been given a massive boost ahead of the Bledisloe Cup, with experienced playmaker Matt Toomua inking a two-and-a-half-year deal to return to Australian rugby.
With two weeks remaining the Super Rugby Playoffs are starting to take shape. In 2018 the finals format is more or less the same as 2017.
The winners of the three conferences automatically qualify for the top three spots, in order or competition points, followed by the next five best teams in order of competition points regardless of conference.
While the Waratahs are in command of the Australian Conference the Rebels and Brumbies have plenty to play for.
The Crusaders and Hurricanes have both punched their tickets to the 2018 finals series, with the Crusaders all but assured the minor premiership.
In the South African Conference the Jaguares are riding high after a seven-game win streak and are challenging the Lions for the Conference title, while the Sharks can still feature if they finish the season with two wins and results go their way.
Let’s take a dive into how the next two weeks can play out and break down each teams path to finals footy.
Waratahs (39 points)
The Waratahs essentially put one hand on the Australian Conference championship with their win over the Rebels on Friday night.
With home games against the Sunwolves and Brumbies to finish the season the Waratahs are in pole position and complete control of their destiny.
One win will likely be enough to secure the Australian Conference as the Rebels would need nine points from their final two games and would also put the Brumbies slim chances of winning the conference to bed.
However the Waratahs need to be eying off two wins because they have a genuine shot at finishing second overall.
South African Conference leaders the Lions have a bye this weekend and are only two points up on the Tahs and the best they can finish is on 46 points. two wins will see the Waratahs finish with 47-49 points.
Home ground advantage in Rounds 1 and 2 of the finals will be critical for a Waratahs finals push and the chance of a home grand final should they make it that far is plenty of motivation.
Best finish – second
How it happens – Win both remaining home matches
Worst Finish – 10th
How it happens – Waratahs lose both remaining matches with no bonus points, Brumbies defeat both Waratahs and Chiefs securing a bonus point in both wins, Rebels win at least one game, Sharks defeat Stormers and Jaguares, Jaguares defeat Bulls.
Likely finish – second (48 points)
Rebels (35 points)
The Rebels may need some divine intervention to win the Australian Conference but have control over whether or not they play finals footy in 2018.
All they need to do is finish with more points than the Sharks and Brumbies. Two away games to finish the season won’t be an easy task.
In Round 18 the Rebels will travel to Brisbane to face the Reds, whose season is over.
Four points here will all but secure a finals sport (five will knock the Brumbies out of contention if the Waratahs also pick up at least one point) and with a trip to Dunedin the following week it will be a big game for the Melbourne franchise.
If the Waratahs stumble in their remaining two games five points might be enough to snatch the Australian Conference, it isn’t likely but it is a little extra motivation for the Rebels to take care of business on the road in week 18.
The Lions face the Bulls in week 19, if the Bulls can play spoiler second place is still a, albeit small, possibility for the Rebels.
Best Finish – second
How it happens – Rebels defeat Reds and Highlanders with two bonus points. Waratahs lose to both Sunwolves and Brumbies, Lions Lose to Bulls
Worst Finish – 11th
How it happens – Rebels lose to both Reds and Highlanders, Brumbies win both matches against Chiefs and Waratahs (or earn one win and two bonus points with a better for and against then the Rebels), Sharks win one match, Bulls win both matches against the Jaguares and Lions with two bonus points and a finish with a better for and against than the Rebels.
Likely Finish – eighth (40 points)
Brumbies (29 points)
Many assumed the Brumbies season was over, and it is going to be hard work earning a spot in the 2018 finals but it is still possible. With games away against the Chiefs in Round 18 and the Waratahs in the final round and near maximum points required it will take a small miracle for the Brumbies feature in finals footy this year, however all hope is not lost.
As the Brumbies play the Waratahs in their final fixture a Bonus Point win against the Chiefs and a Waratahs loss to the Sunwolves (with no Bonus Point) would set up a scenario where a big Brumbies win over the Tahs could see them leap frog the Waratahs (on points difference), and dependent upon Rebels losses, potentially claim the Australian Conference.
Their only hope is to win out but if they can do that their chances are better than they might seem at present.
Best Finish – third
How it happens – Defeat both the Chiefs and Waratahs with Bonus Points and finish with a better points differential than the Waratahs. Waratahs lose to the Sunwolves without a Bonus Point. Rebels win at most one game with no Bonus Point and finish with a worse points differential than the Brumbies.
Worst Finish – 13th
How it happens – Brumbies lose both matches without a bonus point, Stormers defeat Sharks with a bonus point, Bulls win at least one game with a bonus point, Blues defeat both Hurricanes and Crusaders.
Likely finish – 11th 29 points
Crusaders (54 points)
The Crusaders are heavy favourites for the 2018 Super Rugby Championship and for good reason. Nine points clear of second place Hurricanes, essentially a single point will secure top spot for the Crusaders and with it home ground advantage throughout the finals.
Given the Crusaders current 15 match home game win streak the south islanders will be next to impossible to stop in 2018. Home games against the Highlanders and Blues will ensure the Crusaders are in top form headed into the finals.
Best Finish – first
How it happens – Secure at least two bonus points. Or have Hurricanes fail to attain two bonus point victories.
Worst finish – fourth
How it happens – Lose to both the Highlanders and Blues with no bonus points. Hurricanes defeat both the Blues and the Chiefs with two bonus points.
Likely finish – first (63 points)
Hurricanes (45 points)
The Hurricanes will make a run at the top spot and the incredibly valuable home ground advantage throughout the finals.
First overall may be unlikely however seeding in the New Zealand conference will play a very important role in this year’s finals.
The New Zealand conference presents an interesting proposition. Finishing second and third likely means finishing fourth and fifth overall and sets up an all New Zealand quarter final match up.
Where as finishing fourth in the conference, sixth or seventh overall would see them take on the winner of either other conference.
Travelling to South Africa is not an inviting prospect, however flying across the ditch to face either the Waratahs or Rebels is much more appetising.
At the end of the day home ground advantage in the quarter finals is too valuable to pass up, and the Kiwis can bank on their country men to win on the road, transferring home ground back to the higher seeded New Zealand teams.
And of course, there is the habitual commitment to excellence that oozes from the land of the long white cloud. The road home for the Hurricanes is no cake walk with the Blues at home and Chiefs away.
There will be plenty to play for in that final round match up with the Chiefs.
Best Finish – first
How it happens – Hurricanes defeat both Blues and Chiefs with bonus points, Crusaders lose both Highlanders and Blues with no bonus points.
Worst Finish – eighth
How it happens – Hurricanes lose both matches without bonus points, Highlanders defeat Crusaders and Rebels, Chiefs win one match and secure one bonus point. Jaguares defeat both Sharks and Bulls, Lions defeat the Bulls with a bonus point.
Likely Finish – fifth (50 points)
Chiefs (41 points)
The Chiefs still have a lot of control over their own destiny. If they take care of the Brumbies this weekend with a bonus point it will set up a definitive match against the Hurricanes.
A win over the Hurricanes at home will earn them second spot in the New Zealand conference and fourth overall, and likely set up a rematch against the Canes in Hamilton the following week in the Quarter Finals.
The Chiefs will be heading into the final two weeks full of optimism.
Best finish – fourth
How it happens – Chiefs defeat both Brumbies and Hurricanes with at least one bonus point, Highlanders win only one game or win both with one less bonus point than the Chiefs.
Worst finish – ninth
How it happens – Chiefs lose to both Brumbies and Hurricanes, Highlanders win at least one match, Jaguares defeat Bulls, Sharks defeat both Jaguares and Stormers with bonus points, Lions earn at least one bonus point.
Likely finish – fourth (51 points)
Highlanders (40 points)
Despite being fourth in the New Zealand conference the Highlanders are unlikely to miss out, the only team on the outside who can trouble the Highlanders is the Sharks and they need to win both matches, likely with bonus points.
An away match up with the Crusaders this weekend will determine how high the landers can rise. Two wins with bonus points and other results going their way and the Highlanders can finish as high as fourth.
Best Finish – fourth
How it happens – Highlanders win both remaining games, Hurricanes lose both games, Chiefs lose to Brumbies.
Worst Finish – 10th
How it happens – Highlanders lose both games, Sharks defeat both Jaguares and Stormers with at least one bonus point, Jaguares defeat Bulls, Rebels either defeat reds and Highlanders or defeat only highlanders and earn at least two bonus points in final two games.
Likely finish – sixth (45 points)
Lions (41 points)
The Lions have not been as dominant in 2018 as they have been the past two seasons but have still been the best of the South African contingent.
Worryingly the Lions did not register a single win over New Zealand opposition in 2018. Home losses to the Blues and Crusaders were both close and securing the South African Conference and home ground advantage will be critical if the Lions want to make their third straight grand final and break through for their first championship.
Finals travel to South Africa is especially difficult with short turn around times and long flights. The Lions know how influential and important that advantage can be, beating the Crusaders and the Highlanders at home in the 2016 finals and then the Hurricanes in 2017 before going down to the Crusaders at home in the grand final.
Unfortunately for the Lions, the second place is not assured. With a bye in week 18 the maximum points they can accrue is 46, three shy of the Waratahs 49, who have a relatively easy run home. All the Lions can do is watch and hope the Waratahs stumble against the Sunwolves at home and then take care of business against the Bulls at home in Round 19.
The Lions will also be weary of the Jaguares who also have a game in hand and with two wins and one bonus point would claim the South African conference no matter the outcome of the Lions and Bulls game.
Throw the Rebels in who can also snatch second with two wins and results going their way and the race for second and third is going to be really exciting.
Frighteningly the Lions could see themselves in a must win situation in Round 19 if the Waratahs, Rebels, Sharks, Jaguares and Highlanders all win in Round 18. The saving grace is the Jaguares are on the road.
Best finish – second
How it happens – Lions defeat the Bulls, Jaguares, Waratahs and Rebels win only one game each.
Worst finish – ninth
How it happens – Lions lose to the Bulls with no bonus point. Jaguares defeat Bulls, Sharks defeat both Stormers and Jaguares, Waratahs win at least one game, Rebels win both games, highlanders and chiefs both win one game.
Likely finish – third (45 points)
Jaguares (38 points)
The Jaguares have finally figured Super Rugby out and are currently riding a seven-game win streak and looking very good to make the finals and to put up a fight.
The Jaguares will face the Bulls and the Sharks in South Africa in Rounds 18 and 19. The Jags have not been to the republic since rounds 1 and 2 where they lost both matches, however they travelled well in Australasia winning all four games.
Should they win both matches with at least one bonus point the South African Conference is theirs so there is plenty of motivation to continue this win streak.
The Jaguares actually have a much better chance at the South African conference and potentially second place than the Lions.
There is little room for error though. If the Sharks knock off the Stormers this weekend they can knock the Jaguares out of the finals the following week, the Jaguares need to take care of business.
Best finish – second
How it happens – Jaguares win both matches with one bonus point, Waratahs win only one match.
Worst finish – ninth
How it happens – Jaguares lose both matches, Rebels win at least one match, Sharks win both matches
Likely finish – seventh (43 points)
Sharks (32 points)
The Sharks have not been incredibly inconsistent in 2018 and have only once put together two wins in a row, which is exactly what is required to earn a spot in this year’s finals.
The Sharks are still more or less in control of their own destiny and two wins (and a bonus point or two) will put them in a very good position to make the finals, they will still need results to go their way but not necessarily requiring upsets.
If the Highlanders defeat the Rebels in Round 19 their season remains very much alive. And if either the Jaguares or Lions slip up the South African Conference and the third seed is remarkably still in play.
There is no doubt the Sharks are on the outside looking in but with Round 19 match up against the Jaguares they do have a level of determination over their fate.
Best finish – third
How it happens – Sharks defeat both the Stormers and Jaguares with two bonus points, Lions lose to Bulls with no bonus point, Jaguares lose to Bulls.
Worst finish – 11th
How it happens – Sharks lose both matches, Bulls win both of their matches, Brumbies win at least one match.
Likely finish – ninth (37 points)