Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town – Avoid eighth like the plague.
That will be the wish of all borderline teams – there are several, including no lack of South Africans – bidding to make the cut for the Super Rugby finals series in the last round of ordinary season this weekend.
Like wishing to dodge sitting next to the severely unwashed traveller in economy class, the bottom playoffs position automatically means the occupants, for their sins, must play defending champions and nine-time title winners the Crusaders in their Christchurch stronghold.
Although they are also the only team to have a bye in the last round, which may make them only better prepped in many ways for the start of the knockout phase, the ‘Saders have completed their 16-match programme in a comfortably unassailable position at the top of the table, on 58 points.
The closest any team could come to them on the closing weekend is 54 points, should compatriots the Hurricanes earn a full house of five log points in their home tussle with the Blues.
There isn’t even much of an incentive for them to do so, as the side from Wellington, by the tournament’s controversial structural decree, will now end fourth overall come what may – they are forbidden from finishing above either of the SA and Australian conference winners (Jaguares and Brumbies respectively) regardless of the log points situation.
But seven teams also trade within a five-point radius in mid-table (fifth to 11th), leaving a particularly fierce scramble to earn wildcard tickets to the quarter-finals a week onward.
If the ordinary-season business had been completed last weekend, three strictly SA-based outfits (Bulls in fifth, Lions sixth, Stormers seventh) would have joined the Jaguares in the last eight, albeit all of the trio with unfavourable, longhaul-travel away dates.
What’s more, the Crusaders could have licked their lips at the thought of entertaining the Melbourne Rebels (as they’re currently eighth) in their first “KO” assignment: it would have been a fortnight on from last weekend’s 66-0 slaughter of the very same foes at AMI Stadium.
That may still happen, although a better bet, arguably, is that the fading Rebels, with successive damaging losses in the last two rounds, miss the cut: they entertain the still-kicking (perhaps only just, but nevertheless in-form) Chiefs on Friday.
Crossing continents again at this advanced stage of the competition is never ideal for any teams, but all of the South African sides, for example -- especially with the Sharks also not out of the picture yet -- would far prefer quarter-final overseas clashes with anyone but the legendary Crusaders.
Not even the supposed impediment of liberally resting All Black stars along the way has stopped their march toward yet another title this year, and now that the knockouts are around the corner (and their players all benefiting from an extra week of feet-up) the Cantabrians will no longer be charitable in team selection from here.
They are in the unique position statistically – and it provides a formidable psychological barrier to any visitors to Christchurch in the finals series – of never having lost in 21 home knockout matches in Super Rugby.
Eighth this season? Frankly, who’d want it?
Full list of home Crusaders knockout results in the competition:
2018: Crusaders 40 Sharks 10 (QF); Crusaders 30 Hurricanes 12 (SF); Crusaders 37 Lions 18 (F)
2017: Crusaders 17 Highlanders 0 (QF); Crusaders 27 Chiefs 13 (SF)
2014: Crusaders 38 Sharks 6 (SF)
2013: Crusaders 38 Reds 9 (QF)
2012: Crusaders 28 Bulls 13 (QF)
2011: Crusaders 36 Sharks 8 (QF)
2008: Crusaders 33 Hurricanes 22 (SF); Crusaders 20 Waratahs 12 (F)
2006: Crusaders 35 Bulls 15 (SF); Crusaders 19 Hurricanes 12 (F)
2005: Crusaders 47 Hurricanes 7 (SF); Crusaders 35 Waratahs 25 (F)
2004: Crusaders 27 Stormers 16 (SF)
2003: Crusaders 39 Hurricanes 16 (SF)
2002: Crusaders 34 Highlanders 23 (SF); Crusaders 31 Brumbies 13 (F)
2000: Crusaders 37 Highlanders 15 (SF)
1998: Crusaders 36 Sharks 32 (SF)
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