Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town – At the risk of readers saying “I’m sure I’ve
heard that one before” my tip is for the Crusaders to snatch crucial inside
lane for the 2012 Super Rugby title by ending ordinary season at the top of the
It is hardly a revolutionary suggestion, given that the
seemingly ever-competitive Cantabrians have won the competition a clear-cut
record seven times, is it?
But I like to think there is at least some element of daring
to my prediction, nevertheless ... it comes when you examine their current log
position, which is sixth overall and third in the New Zealand conference.
That tends to suggest that they have a fair bit of ground to
make up on the various front-runners, and they do, to some degree: they are six
points adrift of slightly surprising tournament leaders the Chiefs and four
behind the second-placed Stormers.
But all of the sides presently occupying the top six slots
are relatively tightly bunched and with all but the Bulls (eight games) still to
play seven matches each, there remains plenty of room for great disturbance to
the pecking order.
I will also not be credited with breaking daring new ground
by suspecting that, however much shuffling takes place among the leading
half-dozen, they will stay the six who remain alive after the conference phase
As things stand, there is a fair gap between this “elite”
and the bottom nine, although all of mid-tablers the Sharks, Waratahs, Reds and
Hurricanes will hold onto the belief for the time being that they can yet
wrestle their way into the playoffs cut – we are not talking ludicrously long-shot
mathematics in their cases just yet.
But it will require something close to a genuinely golden
run by one or two of them if that is to occur. With the Sharks, for instance,
struggling to lump together even back-to-back wins this season, what price
their suddenly reeling off four or five on the trot?
There are many other variables to consider, like the
perennial bogey of camp injury plagues, or suspensions, plus in this crazily
crammed season the matter of which franchises offer up the most candidates for
internationals during the three-week window and how fit and mentally focussed those
troops will be for more Super Rugby drudgery immediately afterwards.
All those things taken into account, here are my proposed
top six teams at the conclusion of conference activity, from best-placed down. It
is arguably a reflection of the broad balance of power right now involving the
three SANZAR powerhouses, with three New Zealand teams qualifying, by my theory,
two from South Africa and just one from Australia this time – in 2011 there was
an even spread of two each.
1 CRUSADERS (played
nine, 33 points thus far)
Lurking thereabouts ... it’s hardly the worst terrain for
these cunning old foxes to be occupying. After all, they are past masters at
knowing how to time a run. Yes, they have already lost three times, which will
be a wee concern to them, but their run-in programme is probably the best of
all the playoffs contenders and it is primarily for that reason that I see them
advancing stealthily through the pack to assume handy “pole” just ahead of the
finals series. The ‘Saders play five of their remaining seven obligations in
Christchurch. Throw in the fact that Dan Carter is likely to get sharper and
sharper, Richie McCaw is well on the mend, and they are quite good at rotating
their key personnel ... it’s a recipe for a compelling late charge.
Reds (h), Rebels (a), Blues (h), bye, Highlanders (h), Hurricanes (h), Chiefs
(a), Force (h).
2 STORMERS (played
nine, 37 points thus far)
I am pretty resolute in my belief that the Capetonians,
increasingly hard to beat even if still not quite a team of try-scoring
“dazzlers”, will top the South African conference. In doing so, they will also
repeat their 2011 trick of ending second overall and at least teeing up a
guaranteed home semi-final. Four of their last seven fixtures are at Newlands,
a good comfort, including a convenient last-day one against the generally
lame-duck Rebels if they are jockeying especially fiercely for prime slots. But
there are also successive away derby toughies against the Sharks and Bulls to
chew on, and they will not want many further injury disruptions now. Still,
even finishing top overall is certainly not beyond them, such is the high level
of self-belief and determination throughout their squad.
Bye, Cheetahs (h), Waratahs (h), Sharks (a), Bulls (a), Lions (h), Cheetahs
(a), Rebels (h).
3 BRUMBIES (played
nine, 31 points thus far)
It is just possible that the best Australian side ahead of
the finals series will effectively end sixth! But as competition rules
dubiously stipulate that the top finishers in each conference must also occupy
the leading three positions come what may, the Brumbies ought to end third
overall. There is obviously still the threat, considering that they are only
five points clear of the Waratahs and six better than still-breathing defending
champions the Reds, that they will be leapfrogged in their conference. But with
Jake White commendably squeezing the best out of a few ordinary staffers in
their midst, they could just about hold on. They also have no further matches
against any of the current best three sides from New Zealand or South Africa’s
premier two -- a further fillip.
Waratahs (h), bye, Hurricanes (a), Reds (h), Rebels (a), Force (a), Waratahs
(a), Blues (h).
4 CHIEFS (played
nine, 39 points thus far)
It is with some reluctance that I “downgrade” the plucky
Chiefs – not lacking in panache or muscle, either – to a fourth-placed finish
despite their current table-topping status. But again it is largely as a result
of tourney placement rules. Nevertheless, they have been riding an unbeaten
wave for so long that you have to suspect it’s got to peter out to some extent.
(It oughtn’t just yet ... next up are the abject Lions, but then it gets much
more taxing again.) As much as I fancy the Crusaders to gradually shoot to the
top over the next few weeks, let it be said that if the “Mooloo Men” prevail in
key crunches with the desperate Reds (away) and Bulls and Crusaders (home),
they might yet be the ones still ruling the overall roost when ordinary season
Lions (h), Reds (a), bye, Bulls (h), Blues (a), Highlanders (a), Crusaders (h),
5 BULLS (played
eight, 37 points thus far)
Some optimistic Bulls fans may disapprove of my fifth-placed
suggestion for them, preferring a loftier berth. Tell you what, though, if
you’d offered it to the franchise at the start of the campaign, what with so
many of their veteran iron-men quitting the corral, I bet most of their bosses
would have banked it! Much of their health in the remaining, bye-less weeks
depends on how they tour abroad: even if the Rebels in Melbourne first up seems
a great way to establish momentum (losing would be a significant torpedo to the
hull), it is possible they may only secure one further win from the remaining
three assignments overseas. For many years the Bulls toured notably badly,
until the likes of Messrs Matfield, Du Preez, Steenkamp and the two tight-five
Bothas got used to it and prospered ... but these men are all gone. The rebuilding
Bulls will do very, very well to match the Stormers’ 13 points in Australasia,
Rebels (a), Waratahs (a), Highlanders (a), Chiefs (a), Stormers (h), Cheetahs
(h), Sharks (a), Lions (h).
6 HIGHLANDERS (played
nine, 34 points thus far)
I think we have seen enough from the Otago-based outfit to
suggest they will beat the cut-off – their Houdini act in supposedly
lung-busting Highveld conditions against the Cheetahs only indicated their
resolve. Certainly if they end their mini-tour of South Africa with a win over
the Sharks as well, Jamie Mackintosh and company will be set very fair indeed
for the playoffs, despite few obviously “easy” remaining fixtures presenting
themselves. In many other sports competitions, a last-round bye would be a
hindrance: in this one, with its attached little four-point bonanza, it’s
hardly the worst fate for the Highlanders, is it?
Sharks (a), Hurricanes (h), Bulls (h), Blues (a), Crusaders (a), Chiefs (h),
Reds (a), bye.
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