The trans-Tasman drought is over, firming the Waratahs as favourites in the Australian conference. The NZ conference is now a clear two-horse race, while the Jaguares are putting heat on the Lions in South Africa.
1 Crusaders (First in NZC)
The Crusaders have reclaimed top billing, despite the fact they struggled to put away the Blues on a wet night at Eden Park and have again lost a prop on a fortnight’s suspension. They were without Sam Whitelock and were untidy at times, but still had the wherewithal to close out the clash.
2 Hurricanes (Second in NZC)
Brilliant and shoddy in equal measure against the Reds, the Hurricanes know they will have to show their mettle for far longer when they face down the Crusaders in Friday night’s virtual NZ conference decider. Lock Sam Lousi is starting to show out in the tight and may have been worth a look by the All Blacks selectors.
3 Jaguares (Second in SAC)
Mario Ledesma is doing something right in Buenos Aires. The Jaguares thumped the Bulls 54-24 and scored some superb tries with their continuity play in doing so. Nicolas Sanchez gorged himself on 24 points. Watch out, Lions.
4 Waratahs (First in AC)
The Waratahs did it. They smashed the trans-Tasman hoodoo in emphatic style and now look the goods to take out the Australian conference. Their backline is compelling and sizeable, Israel Folau and Taqele Naiyaravoro hard to contain. Yes, we know they were helped by the Tevita Nabura red card in the 41-12 win over the Highlanders, but they still had one of their best displays of 2018.
5 Lions (First in SAC)
The Lions are hanging in there as leaders of the SA conference, and the manner of their comfortable defeat of the Brumbies would suggest they are not a busted flush, though it did not make everyone happy (Ashwin Willemse, for one). Now they must win in Cape Town.
6 Sharks (Third in SAC)
This looks a little high for the Sharks, considering they struggled to put away a depleted Chiefs in Durban. But they are right in the thick of the SA conference battle and quite capable of beating the high-flying Jaguares in BA.
7 Chiefs (Third in NZC)
There were too many errors and turnovers in Durban for the Chiefs to feel good about themselves, despite missing a raft of key personnel. But they did secure a bonus point, which may be priceless in the countdown to the playoffs. They will have their All Blacks back for the Waratahs match on Saturday. Do not write them off just yet.
8 Highlanders (Fourth in NZC)
Memo Highlanders: try and keep 15 men on the field next time. It always helps. Now it seems, though, that Ben Smith might be rested for the vital encounter with the Reds in Brisbane. These are choppy waters for Aaron Mauger to navigate.
9 Bulls (Fourth in SAC)
The Bulls played like they were out of the running against the Jaguares. But they are not, and they have a friendly draw with which to reach the playoffs with the wettest of sails.
10 Reds (Third in AC)
Fair play to the Reds. They damned near stole the points in Wellington a week after the worst defeat in their history. But the Hurricanes should have seen it coming. We know Taniela ‘The Tongan Thor’ can run like the wind at times, we know that George Smith can still be a nuisance at the breakdown, and we now Samu Kerevi runs a nice angle. What we don’t know is whether they can back it up against the Highlanders.
11 Stormers (Fifth in SAC)
The defeat to the Sunwolves in Hong Kong may have knocked their end in, unless they can manufacture a rugby miracle in Joburg this weekend.
12 Rebels (Second in AC)
Straight off the bye and into the hungry challenge of the Sunwolves. They might yet hold second place in Australia.
13 Blues (Fifth in NZC)
The Blues were better, more engaged, more committed against the Crusaders. But again, not quite good enough. It was youngsters such as Rieko Ioane and Dalton Papali’i who led the way. The bye will allow some of the walking wounded to recover.
14 Brumbies (Fourth in AC)
Not good enough against the Lions, and now under severe pressure from the Sunwolves to prop up the Australian conference table.
15 Sunwolves (Fifth in AC)
The Sunwolves travel to Melbourne on the back of a two-match winning streak and with a healthy dollop of confidence. We can safely say that sentence has never before been written. All hail, Hayden Parker, who did his best Jonny Wilkinson impersonation in the 26-23 win over the Stormers.