At the start of Week 12 of Super Rugby, two things are certain: the Crusaders are in the finals and the Sunwolves are not.
As for the rest, the Hurricanes look like a shoo-in for fourth – calm down, calm down – and then you can throw a blanket over the rest, with a spread of only nine points over the remaining 12 teams.
At the start of the season, the Melbourne Rebels were widely tipped to win the Australian conference and qualify for the finals for the first time in their ninth year in the competition.
Are they going to fire up or flame out over the next seven weeks?
In the first 12 weeks of the season, the Rebels will have played only four home games and had two byes. They do not play either the Blues or the Jaguares in the regular season.
Fun fact – in four years the Rebels have played the Jaguares only twice for two losses, and have never been to Argentina, a quirk of changing the format mid-cycle and likely to be rectified next year.
Over the first 11 weeks of the season they have been top of the Australian conference at all times and have never been out of the top five across the league.
Of their home games to date, the Rebels have won three from four and in inter-conference games they have won four from five.
They currently sit fifth with a game in hand over three of the teams above them and two of the teams below them in the top eight. On the official finals rankings they are currently third behind the Crusaders and the Sharks.
All in all, not too shabby.
However, after a three-from-three start, Melbourne have shown a disappointing lack of consistency and a propensity to give up decent half-time leads with second-half blow-outs.
The most disappointing was the Waratahs game, but the most egregious was the Lions game in Johannesburg.
The habit of conceding stupid offside and ruck penalties hurt in both those games and should have hurt more in both of the Brumbies games. Same goes for their seven yellow cards.
That said, the Rebels have played only one truly bad game – against the Sharks in Durban – meaning their SA win cherry remains unpopped.
When they play well, their flat attack has been sensational, scoring 35 tries – joint third with the Brumbies and the Chiefs behind only the Crusaders and the Hurricanes, all of whom have played a game more.
But the game plan requires quick ball and strong set pieces – all the work of the forwards.
There were some concerns that the Rebels would be undermanned in the forwards but they have held up well. While they lead the competition for line-outs won, they are middle of the field for scrums and rucks won and are missing too many tackles.
The whole pack seems to go off the boil at times and that leads into giving away penalties and yellow cards to piggy-back the opposition up the field.
When the opposition is shutting them down on the gain line, they do not seem to have a clear Plan B.
This weekend the Victorian outfit come back from their second bye. Serial penalty offenders have been counselled and the squad has been ripping it up in training this week.
They play the Hurricanes on Saturday afternoon in Wellington – an opposition that will be a formidable test of where they’re at. I have tipped them to win, but realistically, a close loss would satisfy and a bonus point would be great.
So what does the rest of the season hold?
There are two primary objectives. First, win the Australian conference and second, finish higher than the SA conference-winner, thereby holding out hope of two home finals and avoiding the Crusaders before the grand final.
Most experts see the Australian conference as a battle between the Rebels and Waratahs. I disagree.
This weekend is likely to deliver a significant change in the table. Even if they get no points from Wellington, the Rebels should stay top.
The Brumbies and the Reds should both win this weekend and the Reds should get a bonus point, giving them 24 and 23 points respectively.
The Brumbies will need to win with a bonus point to get above the Rebels. I do not see the Waratahs beating the Bulls. They go fourth.
After this weekend, the Rebels will have four home games and only two away in the final six weeks.
By contrast, over the same period, the Reds will have three home and three away games, the Brumbies will have only three home and two away games plus a bye and the Tahs will have only two home games, against the Jaguares and the Brumbies, as well as four away games, against the Lions, Reds, Rebels and Highlanders.
It is not inconceivable that the Tahs will not win another game this season. But I will give them two: Reds away and Brumbies at home plus a few losing bonus points for ten points max.
The Brumbies have the massive advantage that two of their games are against the Sunwolves. That should be ten points.
On top of that, they should beat the Bulls and the Reds at home, losing only to the Tahs in Parramatta. They have another 19 points in them after this weekend.
The Reds have a tougher draw. Their home games are against the Tahs, the Jaguares and the Blues. Their away games are the Rebels, the Chiefs and Brumbies. They are very unpredictable – at a guess, ten points in total, but they could surprise me.
The Rebels should win their home games against the Reds, Bulls, Tahs and Chiefs, plus their away match against the Sunwolves with a bonus point.
I do not expect them to beat the Crusaders in Round 17. The heavyweights should be at full strength given that SANZAAR has given them the bye in Round 18 to freshen up for the finals. The Rebels have 21 points in them.
Crystal balls often shatter, but I am predicting that the Rebels will indeed fire up and win the Australian conference with the Brumbies a close second.
1. Rebels (45)
2. Brumbies (43)
3. Reds (33)
4. Waratahs (30).
With the final game against the Chiefs at the Stockade, what could go wrong?
Tahs fans will be outraged by these predictions, but I see a world of pain for them for the rest of the year.
Without going into deep scientific analysis, this is how the SA conference will pan out.
1. Jaguares (39)
2. Lions (38)
3. Stormers (35)
4. Bulls (32)
5. Sharks (32)
The final eight will be the Crusaders, Rebels, Jaguares and Highlanders plus the Brumbies, Lions, Highlanders and either the Blues or the Stormers making up the last four.
I just hope the Brumbies are not seventh.
A Crusaders vs Rebels final, and the winner is…