The two-horse South African conference race will come down to the final two matches of the regular season. Conversely, the winners of the NZ and Australian conferences are already settled. The Rebels and the Sharks are now vying for the eighth and final playoffs berth.
1 Crusaders (First in NZC)
Champions of the NZ conference. Tick. Home advantage through the playoffs. Tick. Kieran Read looking good after a 47-minute comeback. Tick. Richie Mo’unga in imperious form. Tick. Seven straight NZ derby wins. Tick. Set-piece strike moves looking slick. Tick. Get the engravers in…
2 Waratahs (First in AC)
The Waratahs are hitting their straps at just the right time. Granted, they didn’t have to over-extend themselves to clean out a 14-man Sunwolves, but all their key men look in prime form. Second seeding going into the playoffs is on the cards and that would be a real fillip to Daryl Gibson’s troops.
3 Chiefs (Third in NZC)
They say Brodie Retallick will be back this weekend. They have said that for the last fortnight. What is certain is they need to beat the Hurricanes by 23 on Friday night in the Tron and claim a bonus point to claw into fourth position. Big ask, especially if Sam Cane cannot make the cut or if Damian McKenzie takes his All Blacks rest. The Chiefs had to fight tooth and nail to get the win over the Brumbies last Saturday. Nothing will come easy against the resurgent Canes.
4 Jaguares (Second in SAC)
Edged by the Bulls in Pretoria, the Jaguares at least have qualified for the playoffs. But they should want more, namely the South African conference title. They will know by kickoff in the early hours of Sunday morning what they must do to head the Lions, or indeed if that is even possible.
5 Hurricanes (Second in NZC)
The Hurricanes upped the ante just in the nick of time. The 42-24 victory over the Blues was far from flawless, but it was good enough to toast Brad Shields’ 100th Super Rugby outing. Ngani Laumape took route one and was too hot to handle. The Canes should be good enough to hold fourth position when they hit Hamilton on Friday night.
6 Lions (First in SAC)
The Lions sat on tenterhooks during the bye as they had to force themselves to cheer for their arch-rivals the Bulls. But the men from Pretoria did the job in downing the Jaguares. Now the Lions must turn their sights on the Bulls, knowing victory will confirm their SA conference title. But they must produce their March form rather than their recent output.
7 Highlanders (Fourth in NZC)
Can you believe the Highlanders have lost their last two games by the score of 45-22? What are the odds? And yet, the two displays were far different in nature. In Suva, the Highlanders were gone after 40 minutes and then played for pride. In Christchurch, they hung tough for long periods against a ruthless home side. They scored a couple of cracking tries, but overdid the kicking. Beat the Rebels, however, and they should lock in sixth position.
8 Brumbies (Third in AC)
Oh so close. A late Tyler Ardron knock-on, missed by referee Rasta Rasivhenge, has effectively doused the Brumbies’ playoffs hopes, which are hanging by a thread anyway. They did a lot of good stuff in the 24-19 loss to the Chiefs in Hamilton. Henry Speight ran in a brace on his old Waikato stomping ground.
9 Rebels (Second in AC)
They went to Brisbane and felt scrum heat from the Reds. Jack Maddocks scored a nice try but the 37-23 defeat means they will now need to win in Dunedin to cement their playoffs berth. Good luck with that.
10 Reds (Fourth in AC)
While Quade Cooper and Karmichael Hunt can be found on suburban Brisbane grounds most Saturday afternoons, the Reds are building something solid under Brad Thorn. Their fifth win of the season, against the Rebels, was again founded off a stable scrum platform.
11 Sharks (Third in SAC)
The Sharks missed another trick, falling 27-16 to the Stormers. They continue to clam up against the South African sides. There remains one last chance, against the Jaguares, to sneak into the playoffs, which would mean, not for the first time, a trip to Crusaderland.
12 Bulls (Fifth in SAC)
Fullback Warrick Gelant, running a cunning angle, inspired the Bulls’ comeback from a 19-0 deficit to beat the Jaguares 43-34. Despite their lowly position on the log, they can still have a say in the overall standings when they travel to Joburg.
13 Stormers (Fourth in SAC)
Damian de Allende sparked up, and the Stormers, who have the bye this weekend, at least completed their campaign with a victory and showed some character. But 11th, or 12th, on the log is not the place for their talent.
14 Blues (Fifth in NZC)
The Blues again showed moments of good rugby, but just not enough of them. And they could not stop a rampaging Ngani Laumape. They also cough up far too much ball in contact. Lock them in for 14th position.
15 Sunwolves (Fifth in AC)
It would be easy to say that Semisi Masirewa’s red card, for which he copped a three-week ban, was the root cause of the Sunwolves’ 77-25 hiding from the Waratahs. It is true they were competitive up until that point, but all the defensive frailties then resurfaced in the face of a rampant home side.