Though it’s been one of the tightest – and best – seasons of the Super Rugby in recent years, the weekend’s results have left a funny, almost underwhelmed feeling, with all three conferences now wrapped up.
That’s not at all to take anything away from the emphatic way in which the Crusaders, Jaguares and Brumbies wrapped up their respective conferences!
The three of them enjoyed dominant wins and played exactly the sort of rugby everyone loves watching.
And though all three have had moments of being a bit up and down, their eventual command over their conferences is highlighted by the very fact they’ve been able to seal them with one round to play.
With the Hurricanes also firmly entrenched in the first wildcard position, the top four seeds for the finals are now set. And it’s pretty unlikely the order will change, too, with the Brumbies needing a win themselves, along with the Sunwolves to cause the mother of all upsets this weekend, by beating the Jaguares in Buenos Aires.
It would’ve been great to have the conferences go to the wire, but it’s a minor inconvenience that they’ve not. If anything, it gives the four teams and their respective unions an extra week to market the bloody hell out of the home qualifying finals next week.
However, going into the final round of 2019, eight teams can still finish in the fifth to eighth-placed wildcard positions. And, amazingly, only the fifth-placed Bulls are guaranteed.
The Lions, Stormers, and Rebels immediately below them in the overall standings can all miss out, while the Sharks, Chiefs, Highlanders and Waratahs sit outside the eight, with chances ranging from genuine to purely mathematical.
And it’s the equations sitting in front of the teams outside the eight that has me thinking the four teams currently in the wildcard spots will remain there. Their order may well change – with only two points between the four of them, that’s not unexpected – but they have overall been much more consistent than the teams outside.
First up, the common denominator for the four current wildcard teams – let’s just call them ‘the wildcards’ from here – is that their destiny remains in their own hands. Though they can all finish as high as fifth, and yes, for three of them, they can miss out on finals action completely, the simplest and most important equation is this: win and they’re in.
Except they can’t all win; the Bulls host the Lions at Loftus, and both obviously can’t win. Could the Bulls draw a third-straight game?
A Bulls win would see the four wildcards on eight wins, and that’s about right. I did wonder if the closeness of the comp this year might’ve meant teams scrape in with seven wins – and that’s still in play, of course – but if the wildcards all move to at least eight wins, it will also represent a demarcation in the mid-table that I suspect we all knew to be true.
And that is the top eight sides have always been a step or two (or five, in the Crusaders’ case) ahead of the bottom seven.
It’s been great to have the middle of the table so congested, but if the four wildcards win this weekend, we’ll end up with the eight teams that should be there.
Win, and they’re in.
For the Sharks, Chiefs, Highlanders, and Waratahs, the equations are not nearly as simple, and I’m frankly glad someone else gave themselves the headache so that I didn’t have to. Thank you, Balkie02 on Twitter!
Super Rugby 2019 is tight.
Disclaimer : This tweet will vanish once the mistakes become evident, I mean, that's just bound to happen. pic.twitter.com/tz6f4Hwyql
— Balkie (@Balkie02) June 10, 2019
I’m not going to go into all the detail, but there are elements worth touching on.
Starting at the bottom, the Waratahs on 30 points face the Highlanders on 31 points in Invercargill on Friday, and the big-ticket item in the case of both teams is that a bonus-point victory on its own may not be enough; both the Tahs and Highlanders will need other results to go their way.
And obviously, they can’t both get through. They’re both firmly in the ‘unlikely’ category.
The Chiefs head to Melbourne on Friday night, and I’ll let you work out whether it’s exactly the right or exactly the wrong time to be playing the Rebels after their 66-point thumping in Christchurch. Because I can’t.
But the short of it for the Chiefs is that they really need a BP win to ensure they can’t get overrun by either the Highlanders or Waratahs.
That’s the safest, simplest equation; a big enough win and other results could have them finish as high as sixth, while a win without the bonus point would only be enough if neither the Highlanders nor Waratahs take maximum points from a win in the deep south.
The Sharks head to Cape Town to face the Stormers, with the two teams swapping wins at Newlands going all the way back to 2012. It’s the Sharks’ turn to win, for the record.
But sitting just one point below the wildcards, the Sharks face the same simple equation: win, and they’re in.
Like the Chiefs, there are numerous permutations available that could have the Sharks finish as high as fifth, but after their display in Buenos Aires, winning in Cape Town against the wet-sail-hoisted Stormers will be challenging enough.
Ultimately, I keep coming back to the eight wins requirement, and the teams below the wildcards just can’t get there, having probably failed to be good enough to make the playoffs anyway.
And hence, with the top four already set, the wildcards already look pretty safe as well.