Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town – For all the tinkering and, arguably, dilution
that has occurred to Super Rugby over the years, it retains the pleasing
characteristic – at least until its further expansion next year -- of no
outcome being able to be taken for granted.
We were reminded of that again in the last round, when the
Melbourne Rebels knocked over the high-riding Chiefs, and the enormously
weakened Cheetahs did potentially serious damage to the complacent Stormers’
hopes of a favourable ordinary-season finish.
Both were triumphs of sheer, unwavering grit on the day by
underdogs, and there could be more of those “Houdinis” ahead of the finals
series phase from mid-June.
Yet there are also still certain fixtures which, at this
point, can be identified as particularly critical ones on paper in influencing
the all-important composition -- and pecking order -- of teams for the
playoffs, with either five or six games still to negotiate for all contenders.
Before suggesting them, a quick reminder of the current top
eight, and thus likeliest challengers for the finals series berths: 1
Hurricanes (played 10, 43 points), 2 Bulls (played 11, 34 points), 3 Brumbies
(played 11, 32 points), 4 Chiefs (played 11, 38 points), 5 Highlanders (played
10, 33 points), 6 Waratahs (played 10, 31 points), 7 Stormers (played 11, 30
points), 8 Lions (played 11, 27 points).
Here, then, are those selected biggies still to come:
1 Hurricanes v Chiefs
... times two!
When: May 16, Wellington & June 13, New Plymouth
These are the two teams with comfortably the most log points
thus far in the competition, the Chiefs restricted to cruel fourth on the
overall table at present simply because of the tourney-rules insistence that
each conference leader occupy slots 1-3. But both seem hugely in the frame for
the finals series, all the same ... and perhaps some people have forgotten that
they’ve yet to play each other in 2015. For the Chiefs to bump the ‘Canes off
both top spot overall and in the flourishing NZ conference from here, they may
now need to win both clashes. Tough ... but far from impossible. Whatever
happens, we should get 160 minutes of very decent rugby.
2 Blues v Bulls
When: May 15, Auckland
Why this particular Bulls tour fixture, you ask? After all,
it doesn’t seem the most taxing of the quartet for Frans Ludeke’s charges on
paper. But it is also their first game abroad, and I reckon the Bulls badly
need to bank it as a determined tone-setter for the entire trip. Slip up at
Eden Park, and the next two matches against the Chiefs and Brumbies suddenly
look especially immense hurdles, don’t they? As reported earlier this week, the
Pretoria-based side also have a history of fading as Australasian tours
progress. So get a head of steam quickly! They did beat the Blues last time
they encountered them in their own den ... 28-21 in 2013.
3 Lions v Highlanders
When: May 9, Johannesburg
The Lions’ fine winning streak has been snapped ... even
though it came after a very tight, 68-point humdinger at Loftus last weekend.
But if Johan Ackermann’s surprise packages are to stay in the playoffs hunt,
they need to get back aboard the bus swiftly. Who they play this Saturday in
the Big Smoke is an important consideration, too, because the Highlanders are
also hunting a finals series place and the game is thus one of those possible
“eight-point swing” type of affairs. Should the Otago outfit win, they may be
threateningly set for a productive remainder of their mini-tour abroad, which
then sees them play the Cheetahs in Bloemfontein and Force in Perth.
4 Force v Waratahs
When: May 9 & June 5 respectively, Perth
OK, the Force hardly seem fitting customers for a role in
this exercise, lying rock-bottom of the overall table as they do. But at the
top of the Aussie conference, things are seriously tight between the Brumbies
and Waratahs to win the group – and a common dominator for each side in the
remainder of ordinary season is a trip to Western Australia to play the men in
blue. How many points out of the possible five on offer that the ‘Tahs and
Brumbies can bag in Perth could even prove a key determinant for which eventually
finishes in front. Remember that way back in the opening round, the Force
stunned Michael Cheika’s defending champions 25-13 in Sydney ...
5 Hurricanes v
When: June 5, Napier
The Highlanders may be riding commendably healthily in fifth
overall as things stand, but their run-in is almost as disadvantageous as, say,
the Bulls’ is, given the heavy emphasis (five out of six) on away fixtures and
their overseas leg not having kicked off just yet. One of those daunting tasks
on the road will be against the pace-setting ‘Canes in their second-last match,
and they won’t be getting any favours at that juncture, that’s for sure. The
first-round meeting in Dunedin saw the visitors win 20-13.
6 Sharks v Stormers
When: June 13, Durban
I do believe, despite their patchy performances in recent
weeks, that the Stormers will be still contending for the playoffs in some
capacity come the final weekend – if they aren’t by then, serious questions
will need to be asked given their rosy run of Newlands games immediately ahead!
But one thing you can depend on: the time-honoured unwillingness of South
African derby rivals to play rollover, regardless of whether they are in the
frame themselves or not. The presently limp Sharks won’t be ... surely? You can
bet your last dollar, though, they will be right up for the all-coastal clash
with the Capetonians at Kings Park, in a quest to continue the party-spoiling
trend that exists between these fierce foes. It is the very last game of
ordinary season, competition-wide, so the Stormers will know exactly what is
required of them going into it. As sure as the sun sets every day, the Sharks
will have made a mental note, too ...
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