High stakes in Super Rugby
THE desperate Sharks against a desperate Bulls is just one of the key games in the penultimate round of Super rugby pool play this weekend with five play-off places still undecided.
Eight teams are in contention for five available places, but with big local derbies across the conferences, including the Crusaders against the Chiefs in New Zealand, the race is wide open and the final standings a long way from decided.
The Chiefs head the NZ and overall standings on 62 points with the Crusaders 10 points behind. The Stormers (58) top the South African standings and are second overall while the Brumbies (54) are the Aussie leaders.
The others in contention for places in the top six are the Bulls (54), the Hurricanes (49), Reds (49), Sharks (49) and Highlanders (45).
The Chiefs are the only side guaranteed of their place in the play-offs and would have to endure defeats by the Crusaders and the Hurricanes in the final rounds to give up their top position in the NZ conference.
Two Chiefs defeats would also aid the Stormers as they chase the overall top place in addition to the SA conference title. A home final is guaranteed for the team that finishes top of the overall standings if they win their semifinal. It’s a huge prize.
So from a Stormers point of view, they would prefer the Chiefs to lose both matches to have a shot at topping the overall standings. But even if the Chiefs lose twice it would require the Stormers to win both their remaining matches against the Cheetahs and Rebels, preferably with bonus points.
From a neutral SA perspective it would be better if the Chiefs beat the Crusaders and Hurricanes so that the Bulls and Sharks could both reach the play-offs.
That’s a long shot as they play each other this coming weekend, but a Sharks win and a couple of bonus points for the Bulls coupled with defeats for the Crusaders and Reds, who play the Highlanders, would take it down to the wire.
In the final round the Sharks meet the Cheetahs in Durban while the Bulls host the Lions. The Sharks’ goal is simply to take 10 points from the next two games to reach the play-offs.
The Bulls will also be aiming for maximum points as they still have a chance of topping the SA standings at the Stormers’ expense.
For the Stormers the equation is simple: win your last two games and you have a home semi-final.
The Super 15 is overly long but there is no denying that as it reaches the end of the season, the permutations and fixtures have created a thrilling finale to the pool phase.