Well then, hasn’t this all set itself up for a thoroughly intriguing downhill run into the Super Rugby Pacific playoffs?
A couple of blow-out scores were evened out by another couple of impressive wins from Australian teams this weekend just gone, and all of a sudden – and certainly unexpectedly, to some – the final finishing places of the top half of the table are far from locked in with three rounds to come.
The criticism when first announced, was that a top eight finals series was going to reward too many teams, and even that undeserving teams would get to play in at least the first week of playoffs, and that may still be the case.
But it’s also true that the top eight format will ensure the mid-to-lower table race only becomes all the more intriguing as a result. And further to that, there’s a reasonable chance that whoever does sneak into the eighth and final place will have done so on a late run of form, which will go some way to diluting the ‘undeserving’ argument.
Regardless of your thoughts on the format, the table as it stands is interesting for the couple of clear lines of demarcation. And it’s debateable whether any team is likely cross those lines and find themselves in a higher grouping, by virtue of the closeness of teams within those groupings.
There’s a seven-point gap from the third-placed Crusaders to the fourth-placed Chiefs, for e.g. The Crusaders themselves are four points below the second-placed Brumbies, but given they play each this weekend, that gap could easily close (yes, it could easily widen, too).
Below that, there’s a twelve-point gap between the seventh-placed Hurricanes and the eighth-placed Highlanders, and then another seven-point gap from the tenth-placed Western Force to the 11th-placed Fijian Drua.
It all amounts to fascinating run home over the final three rounds.
45 points from 10 wins and 5 bonus points. Max. points: 60 – to play: Reds, Brumbies, Waratahs
43 points; 10 wins, 3 BPs. Max. points: 58 – to play: Crusaders, Blues, Moana Pasifika
39 points; 8 wins, 7 BPs. Max. points: 54 – to play: Brumbies, Drua, Reds
The first point to note here is that only one of these three teams can reach their maximum available points tally, on account of the Brumbies hosting the Crusaders and Blues over the next two weekends. Two of the three teams will obviously lose one of their remaining three games.
But a top two finish and home semi-final hosting rights are certainly in play for all three teams. The Blues and Brumbies could at least secure a top four finish this weekend though, given the maximum available points for the next chasing pack of teams, and their far superior win records and points differentials.
The Crusaders might need to wait another week to lock anything down, but if they can get past the Brumbies in Canberra this Friday night, then the Drua and injury-hit Reds would certainly be games they can win well.
Either way, Brumbies-Crusaders this week could quite possibly decide second spot, and Brumbies-Blues next week could then quite possibly decide top spot.
32 points; 7 wins, 4 BPs. Max. points: 47 – to play: Rebels, Force, Drua
32 points; 7 wins, 4 BPs. Max. points: 47 – to play: Hurricanes, Highlanders, Blues
31 points; 7 wins, 3 BPs. Max. points: 46 – to play: Blues, Moana Pasifika, Crusaders
29 points; 6 wins, 5 BPs. Max. points – 44 – to play: Waratahs, Rebels, Force
This group feels like a race in two to secure fourth spot and the final home quarter-final between the Chiefs and Waratahs, though of course, with only three points separating the four of them, they are all in the frame.
The Chiefs certainly have the rails run home, with their last three games all against teams currently in the bottom four, though they only have the Force at home and then have to gear up for finals with an emotional and physical trip to Fiji to face the Drua on home soil. Feels likely they’ll nail down fourth from here, though.
New South Wales have a tough run, but will certainly feel that at least two wins out of the three are achievable, particularly with two games at Leichhardt Oval in Sydney.
A win over the Hurricanes this weekend at home will keep up the heat on the Chiefs too, and who knows what can happen after that. They’re saying top four is their new goal, and that’s certainly within reach if they keep playing the way they are at the moment.
Top four is within reach for Queensland, too, but there’s no question their current form line and injury list is going to be a bigger deciding factor than the mere detail of facing both the Blues and Crusaders in New Zealand over the next three weeks.
Of the current top eight, not even the Highlanders have lost three games since their (nominal) bye weekend, and the question of depth is biting the Reds hard.
They do however have enough points already that they won’t miss the finals; it’s just going to become a question of how healthy they are come the knockout stage.
After being opened up by the Brumbies, there’s no question running in 11 tries against the Drua on Sunday will give the Hurricanes plenty of confidence heading to Sydney this week, and it they can get past the Waratahs, then they’d absolutely fancy their chances against the Rebels and Force, even having to make the trip across the Australian continent.
I suspect they’re going to have trouble catching the Chiefs and/or the Waratahs though, which means their tenuous top four chances are probably decided this weekend.
17 points; 3 wins, 5 BPs. Max. points: 32 – to play: Force, Waratahs, Rebels
15 points; 3 wins, 3 BPs. Max points: 30 – to play: Chiefs, Hurricanes, Highlanders
14 points; 2 wins, 6 BPs. Max points: 34 – to play: (Moana Pasifika), Highlanders, Chiefs, Hurricanes
Three teams less than a one win apart, all with a shot of claiming the eighth and final playoff spot, and with the further complication of a make-up game that could yet prove crucial.
This is where I admit I’d not realised how good a run home the Highlanders have, and that even as recently as last week, I felt the assumptions they’d claim the last playoff spot were well and truly on the generous side.
But they are firmly in control of their own destiny, even just over the next two weeks, hosting the Force and then the Waratahs under the roof in Dunedin. They can easily get to 30 points from here, and the Force with an extra game up their sleeve would seem the only real chance of topping that tally.
The Rebels were good for six minutes and then terrible for the next seventy against the Blues last week, and it will quite likely cost them eighth spot. Their points differential is the worst of these three teams by a long way, and they would need to win all three games from here to get to at least 27 points which likely wouldn’t be enough anyway.
The Force still have the Moana Pasifika game to play and face the distinct possibility of playing three games in a bit over a week at some point over the run home. And those extra points on offer could be the difference between playing finals and not.
They’re going to need at least three wins from those four possible games, however, and I’m not sure they’re playing well enough to do that right now, especially not with only one game left to play in Perth.
7 points; 1 win, 3 BPs. Max. points: 22 – to play: Moana Pasifika, Crusaders, Chiefs
6 points; 1 win, 2 BPs. Max points: 24 to play: (Force), Drua, Reds, Brumbies
The two newcomers were tipped to finish 11th and 12th in the maiden season, and that seems probable from here, though one of them will gain at least four more points when the two sides face off this weekend.
The Drua are showing signs of fatigue after 12 rounds though, so it wouldn’t at all surprise to see them put all their energy into this game in particular, to at least gain bragging rights over their debutant counterparts in what would effectively be a Grand Final. But even if they could win a second game this weekend, I don’t think a third is likely.
Moana Pasifika do perhaps have a chance of finding a third win on account of having the Force game in hand, but you can also understand why they might be reluctant to sign up for another midweek game.
For both these teams, therefore, these last few games become more about playing for next season and for individuals to show Mick Byrne and Aaron Mauger that they have what it takes to keep playing Super Rugby next season. Both teams have used a lot of players already this year, but you couldn’t rule out more debutants to come.
That all said, this weekend is a massive game for both sides, and could genuinely be one of the games of the year. It already looms as near-impossible to tip, but more on that later in the week.
So no finals spots have been locked down yet, but that might not necessarily be true after this weekend coming.
There are some fascinating games to come over the run home, and it all starts this weekend coming, with some really intriguing match-ups to come, and with plenty of games from here on likely to have finals implications.