With the round-robin phase of the Super XV drawing to an end and teams clamouring for a spot in the play-offs it’s becoming increasingly evident that finishing higher up the table may not necessarily be beneficial.
With the conference system in operation, one team from each country is guaranteed a place in the top three. The Chiefs (on 62 points currently) and the Stormers (58) will almost certainly finish in the top two positions, meaning an Australian side, either the Brumbies or the Reds, will finish third.
The Chiefs and Stormers will be rewarded for their success with a bye, while the third placed Australian side will host the team who finishes sixth, and fourth will meet fifth. As the table stands now, the Crusaders, who are fifth, would have to travel to Africa to play the Bulls, while the Hurricanes, who are sitting 6th, simply whip across the Tasman to Canberra. I know which I’d rather be preparing for as a coach/player!
The Crusaders, bolstered by the likely return of key players including Keiran Read and Israel Dagg, are a good shot at beating the Chiefs in Hamilton this weekend, and the Bulls face a huge test away to the Sharks. A Crusaders’ win and a Bulls loss could see the Cantabrians qualify 4th, and force the Bulls to travel to New Zealand for their playoff match. But I still think an away game against either the Brumbies or the Reds is an easier proposition than the Bulls, even if it is at home.
The Bulls and the Stormers have been the bullies of the competition to date, and while the Chiefs may be topping the ladder it is the South Africans who have physically dominated all-in-sundry. Even if a home crowd did spur you on to a win, the likely toll it would take on the team physically would make the following week’s semi-final, against one of the two top qualifiers, a mighty task.
From the New Zealand teams’ point of view, fifth is the worst position to finish in. 6th gets you a date in Australia, and, as long as the Chiefs hang on to the top spot, a semi-final in Hamilton, should you prevail against the Brumbies/Reds.
Fifth means an arduous journey to South Africa, where you’ll not only have to face the brutal Bulls and their rugby-crazed fans, but, even should you win that match, you simply earn another date in the republic, against the equally hard-nosed Stormers.
The Chiefs will have a huge hand in the final standings, as they face the Crusaders in Hamilton and the ‘Canes in Wellington in the final two rounds, but the Crusaders, with a three point head-start over the Hurricanes, are odds on to finish in the dreaded 5th spot and face the toughest of challenges come play-off time.