S15 playoffs: It’s a highway pile-up!
Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town – There’s a clearly-defined top, and bottom, as things stand … but a quite enormous, confusing “middle”.
That is the major hallmark of Super Rugby 2019 at the point where 12 of the 15 teams have now played nine each of their 16 ordinary-season matches.
On the overall table the Crusaders (34 points) -- nine-time champions and seriously threatening to hit double figures this year -- boast a commanding seven-point lead over nearest challengers the Hurricanes (27), although their New Zealand compatriots are curtailed to fourth on the table (Rebels and Bulls above them) through the dubious demands of conference seeding stipulations.
The ‘Saders have a 10-point cushion over the “officially” second-placed Rebels (24), and 11 over the third-placed Bulls (23), although the Pretoria side have a game in hand which could just narrow the gap a fair bit.
Down at the foot of the table, meanwhile, the Sunwolves – pretty soon to be extinct anyway – are looking fair bets for staying there to the finish; they are six point adrift of the 14th-placed Chiefs.
But you might say with some legitimacy that a serious dogfight is taking shape between as many as 13 teams (if you take out the extremely healthy Crusaders and contrastingly limping Sunwolves) in the tournament to crack the eight-team-in-total playoffs phase, beginning in late June.
Even more revealingly, there are 10 teams presently trading in a particularly tight range between 18 and 23 points: in other words, the value of just one bonus-point victory, showing how volatile and unpredictable the season has been so far.
Consistency? It’s been an elusive hallmark for the vast majority of teams, regardless of specific conference.
The prime example, though, is the SA group, where trying to predict the winner from the five sides is a near-nightmarish ordeal, despite this quite advanced stage of combat.
They are peculiarly tightly bunched: a flimsy four points separate the front-running Bulls from the basement Stormers, even if the Capetonians, expensively pipped at home by the Brumbies at the weekend despite a commanding forward effort, have played one game more.
What’s more, Robbie Fleck’s charges even have a very outside chance of soaring from bottom to top if they beat the Bulls convincingly in a derby at Newlands on Saturday.
While it is unlikely, given their notoriously try-shy nature, the Stormers would catapult to 24 points if they won with a bonus point and also deprived their great northern rivals of a losing point of their own, leaving them on 23.
In such a scenario, the Stormers could just go top if other results affecting the conference in the latest round go conveniently their way.
If not necessarily for the calibre of rugby, unfortunately, the SA conference is at least the most engrossing from a mathematical perspective of the three.
That is because there are far bigger gaps between top and bottom in the other two groups: it is 17 points in the NZ conference (Crusaders down to Chiefs) and 13 in the Aussie one (Rebels down to Sunwolves).
When will the pronounced SA conference logjam start to clear?
Perhaps this weekend will finally begin that process … but no guarantees.
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