Super Rugby: the key games left

    2015-05-05 15:36

    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 AND Brumbies

    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 Highlanders

    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 ...  

    *Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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