Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town – The Hurricanes, on paper at the halfway stage for most teams in Super Rugby’s ordinary season, look as though they’re on a near-unstoppable surge to top-placed finish and rights to a possible maiden home final and first-time title.
But paper can be a reasonably flimsy, deceptive device in sport, and if last year’s occurrence in the competition is any yardstick, the men from the Cake Tin should be extremely wary of resting on their laurels for the run-in.
At roughly the same time in 2014, Jake White’s Sharks were sitting almost as pretty, with seven wins from eight of their 16 league fixtures, their only blemish having been a 23-19 derby reverse to the Bulls at Loftus.
But the brutal, fatiguing nature of Super Rugby is such that winning momentum can suddenly be derailed to a very notable extent: it happened to the Sharks then, as they damagingly surrendered half of their remaining eight matches to be knocked out of a home semi-final berth at the death by the Crusaders.
The Waratahs, later to be crowned champions, ended ordinary season in top spot and the ‘Saders snuck into second, an agonising point ahead of the fading KwaZulu-Natalians.
It forced the third-finishing Sharks into an extra playoffs match and although they narrowly won that Durban contest against the Highlanders, having to travel long-distance once more for a semi in Christchurch proved a bridge way too far as they bowed out in a 38-6 drubbing.
Since the conversion to a conference system in 2011, of course, no side finishing outside the top two in the pre-knockout phase has yet managed to land the overall silverware: short history shows that you simply have to boast a home semi, at the very least, if you are to go all the way.
Yes, the surprise-package Hurricanes are even better placed at the “turn” for most teams than the Sharks were in 2014: they stand tall and unbeaten on 31 points (three better than artificially fourth-lying compatriots the Chiefs, who have played an extra match) and that despite being among only four sides not even to have completed eight obligations yet.
But it also tells you that the Wellington-based side have a murderous amount of rugby still ahead of them: they have used up both byes, which isn’t ideal, and now embark on a nine-game unbroken stretch that will make or break their charge.
What’s left also looks considerably tougher in scheduling terms than what is behind them: while a big plus is that their (extremely prosperous) South African safari is long out of the way, the down side is that six of their nine remaining games will be against fellow New Zealanders – and teams from that particular conference have dominated proceedings thus far.
For instance, they have yet to play the Chiefs and Crusaders both home and away, and also have a lingering match against another Kiwi outfit contending strongly for the playoffs, in the form of the Highlanders.
In short, there are desperately few “easy meat” sides for Conrad Smith and company still to play and if, for example, the Chiefs were to beat them each time, then the Waikato team – champions in 2012 and 2013 and with far more business-end street wisdom than they have – would be right back in the frame for top berth.
But the fact that there will still be so many potentially neutralising all-NZ games could also have benefits for the best South African and Australian teams seeking to end in home semi terrain, provided they can get onto decent rolls.
As mentioned in my forecast earlier this week for how the South African conference might end up looking, the Stormers (with a particularly favourable “second half” roster) and Bulls seem smartest money for cracking the last six from these parts of the world.
I was intending in this piece to venture some suggestions for the four eventual semi-finalists; allow me the liberty of a couple of weeks’ extra grace as the situation is simply too fluid at this point and I’m taking the chicken run!
But I will repeat this much with some confidence: that coveted top spot isn’t done and dusted for the Hurricanes ...
Remaining matches for the sides currently in the top six, playoffs-qualifying berths, while acknowledging that the Lions, Crusaders, Waratahs, Sharks and one or two others are still in the hunt themselves:
1 Hurricanes (played seven, 31 points): Waratahs (h), Reds (a), Crusaders (h), Sharks (h), Chiefs (h), Blues (a), Crusaders (a), Highlanders (h), Chiefs (a)
2 Brumbies (played eight, 25 points): Rebels (h), Highlanders (h), Waratahs (h), Stormers (a), Lions (a), bye, Bulls (h), Force (a), Crusaders (h)
3 Bulls (played eight, 24 points): Sharks (a), Stormers (a), Lions (h), bye, Blues (a), Chiefs (a), Brumbies (a), Rebels (a), Cheetahs (h)
4 Chiefs (played eight, 28 points): Crusaders (a), Force (h), Rebels (a), bye, Hurricanes (a), Bulls (h), Highlanders (a), Reds (a), Hurricanes (h)
5 Highlanders (played seven, 24 points): Blues (h), Brumbies (a), Sharks (h), Lions (a), Cheetahs (a), Force (a), Chiefs (h), Hurricanes (a), Blues (a)
6 Stormers (played eight, 22 points): Force (a), Bulls (h), Cheetahs (a), Brumbies (h), bye, Rebels (h), Cheetahs (h), Lions (h), Sharks (a)
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