With just over a month to go, what’s felt like the most unpredictable Super Rugby season in ages will undoubtedly produce a few twists and turns yet, as we begin the run to the playoffs in earnest.
And in as tight a season as we’ve seen to date, the tempting prediction to make is that as was the case in 2018, seven wins and bonus points might be enough to sneak into the final wildcard position. But I’m not sure that will be the case, and the way the draw works for each conference will be the reason why.
Currently, all the New Zealand teams have played twelve games bar the Blues, while in the Australian and South African conferences, only the Brumbies and Sharks have a bye to come.
Further, where the Kiwis will play their remaining games predominantly outside their conference, both the Australians and South Africans will play mostly within theirs. This will have the effect of teams taking wins off each other, and I strongly suspect the net effect of this will be that seven wins and bonus points won’t be enough.
So as I like to do around this time each year, I’ve tried to plot the forward numbers, albeit fairly conservatively. And it would seem the current top eight is pretty much set; I’m not sure the Bulls can win enough games on tour to hold their current wildcard spot, which opens the door for the Lions to sneak in.
New Zealand conference
Currently leading the competition quite comfortably outright, it’s no surprise that I can see the Crusaders going all the way through to seal the top seed. They’re on 47 points currently, and I just don’t see a game among their last four that they might drop. 67 is the maximum points they can reach, and I do think they’ll go pretty close.
The Hurricanes on 40 points, can get to 60, though I suspect they might lose one of their remaining four games to come – the Sharks in Durban being the one most likely. But three wins and bonus points will still be enough to hold the top wildcard slot and fourth overall. No great surprises here again.
Of the Highlanders’ four remaining games, it’s really only the Lions in Johannesburg this weekend that looms as a danger game. They can definitely beat the Stormers in Cape Town the following week, and they can definitely beat the Bulls and Waratahs at home after the bye to finish.
Bonus points along the way should push them to around 42 points and still pretty comfortably in the wildcard positions. There was an interesting article written in NZ last week warning Kiwi fans of the very real prospect of only two teams qualifying for the finals, but the Highlanders shouldn’t have too much trouble sealing the third spot.
The Chiefs may well account for the Blues and Reds over the next fortnight, but I think the Crusaders in Christchurch and Rebels in Melbourne either side of their final bye will be too much. I can see ten points coming from their last four games, but only six wins and 33 points won’t be enough to make it.
Same goes for the Blues. On current form, it’s hard to see them getting past the Chiefs and Crusaders in the next two games, though they’re certainly good enough to beat the Bulls in Auckland in Round 16. But their last two games will be tricky: the Reds in Brisbane, followed by the Rebels in Melbourne.
They promised plenty over the first part of the season, but I think there’s more pain coming for Blues fans.
The Brumbies find themselves on top of the Australian conference heading into a bye this weekend, and on the other side of that is four very winnable games, putting their destiny very much in their own hands.
The Bulls in Canberra, followed by the Sunwolves in Tokyo, the Waratahs in Sydney, and the Reds back in Canberra are four games that a finals-bound team should just win. I can’t see why they won’t, and even just two bonus points will put them somewhere out near 47 points. They’ve hoisted the spinnaker for the run home.
The Rebels have five games to come, but only the Crusaders in Christchurch looks a hurdle they might not currently be capable of getting over. Talk of Matt Toomua debuting as soon as this weekend just only enhances the backline riches Dave Wessels is already enjoying, with the big question who misses out over the remaining games. And like the Brumbies, it’s not difficult to see four wins ahead, with bonus points also likely to put the Rebels out near that same 47 points target. Which means with ten wins apiece, it will come down to points differential, and currently the Brumbies and Rebels are just 15 points apart.
The Reds have a testing draw ahead, and though their five games look similarly winnable, I think they might be doing well to win any more than three, and even that might depend on which team the schizophrenic Jaguares put out in Brisbane in Round 16. I suspect they’ll ultimately fall short, but if the Reds could find an eighth win, then they will absolutely put themselves in the playoffs frame.
The Waratahs, on the other hand, look to be in for a tough time with four of their five remaining games against current top eight sides, and the Reds this week will have all the intensity of a playoffs game anyway.
Their current form isn’t showing me much to suggest they can rapidly climb the ladder, and it wouldn’t honestly surprise me if the Tahs only win one more – probably the Jaguares in Sydney – from here.
One win from their remaining games is something the Sunwolves would take your arm off in accepting the offer, and with good reason. Just on the strength of the Japan A side currently touring Australia, I suspect Tony Brown (and Jamie Joseph) will use the final four games of the Super Rugby season to get some more minutes into Brave Blossom players ahead of the World Cup, and that’ll be about it. Any wins would be just gravy from here.
South African conference
It’s been a mad, mad contest in the Republic this season, and it’s these games that I’m the least confident about. The Sharks, for example, could win all four of their games after this weekend’s bye, yet you just know they’ll drop one they shouldn’t.
The Jaguares in Buenos Aires looks the most likely of their set, though the Hurricanes in Durban the week before won’t be easy either. Three wins from four games will get them near 43 points, and in this crazy conference, that could be enough.
Problem is, a couple of other teams can get near that mark, too. Their Round 12 draw with the Crusaders could yet prove very handy.
The Bulls won’t be one of them, however. I know it was the Crusaders, but the Bulls looked less than pedestrian on the weekend, and now face two weeks in Australia and two weeks in New Zealand before arriving back in Pretoria to face the Lions in the last round.
One win from those five games would not surprise me at all, and I’m not really confident they can win a game on tour. And that’s why I think they’re the biggest danger of missing out.
Three games on the trot away from Buenos Aires doesn’t help the Jaguares, but they have shown themselves to be a team that builds into a tour. Which means they might not get past the Hurricanes and Waratahs initially, but could cause all sort of trouble for the Reds in Brisbane, before finishing with two games at home against the Sunwolves and Sharks.
That final game could well decide the conference; it would seem the Jaguares are heading for a second straight playoffs campaign either way.
The Lions have been less than convincing for much of the year, yet they have been doing enough to win games, well illustrated by their one-point win over the Waratahs on Saturday.
I don’t think they can win their two remaining games away from Ellis Park, and I’m not convinced they can win all three in Johannesburg anyway. But here’s the thing about the South African conference; depending on how the Bulls go, two wins from their last five games could still be enough for the Lions!
Which is more than I can say about the Stormers, who even with a string of games to come at Newlands – four of their last five are in Cape Town – it’s really only the Sunwolves I can see them definitely getting past.
Even if they could sneak one more win against the Crusaders, Highlanders, Lions, or Sharks, I still don’t think seven wins will be enough. They’ve been the least impressive team of the South African conference this season, and I’m unconvinced that will change over the remaining month.
Well, I use the word ‘conclusion’ loosely, because even in trying to plot wins and losses going forward, I’ve still got the Brumbies and Rebels even in the Australian conference, and the Sharks and Jaguares level in South Africa. All four teams could finish as high as second or low as seventh.
The three NZ sides – the Crusaders, Hurricanes, and Highlanders – look set, and though it could be a bit of a toss-up for the final spot, I think it still falls to a South African side.