The Super Rugby season has been in a three week hiatus while the internationals were played out so now it’s time to get back into it and take a look back at the performances of the teams in the fifteen rounds that have passed.
In this week’s article I’m going to run the ruler over each team in the running for the finals and gaze deeply into the crystal ball (via gut instinct, many late Saturday nights driven by Red Bull and an excel spreadsheet) to declare who will be in the top 6 come finals time.
The Chiefs have been the team of the season so far and rightly sit atop both the New Zealand conference and the overall competition. They came into this season having cleaned out some of their talent (others would say dead wood) and with, it must be said, none of the pundits expecting them to be factor in the finals. They have proven everyone wrong by, and it is as simple as this, out muscling and out pacing teams.
The crystal ball: Local derbies against the Highlanders, Crusaders and Hurricanes face the Chiefs in the run home with only the Crusaders game at home. I think the Highlanders game at Forsyth Barr Stadium will test the Chiefs whilst their home fixture to the Crusaders may well be a prelude to the grand final. Wins against the Chiefs and Hurricanes and a bonus point loss to the Highlanders will see the Chiefs on 67 points and the winner of the NZ conference.
The Stormers are a defensive juggernaut that finds ways to win tight fixtures, as viewers of the last round’s nail biter against the Bulls can attest. Regularly written off this season as not scoring enough tries it may now be time to consider whether their play this season has been undervalued. This is not an easy competition by any stretch and despite not scoring points the Stormers are again at the top of the South African conference and within spitting distance of the top stop. Perhaps being the best defensive unit in the competition means more than most think?
The crystal ball: Of all of the teams in the running for the finals, the Stormers face the easiest path to the final six with fixtures against the Lions, Cheetahs and Rebels to come. I expect the Stormers to win each of these games and expect that in at least one of them (maybe two depending on how the Rebels travel) that they may sneak out a bonus point. On that basis they should also end up on 67 points and will win the SA conference.
After a slow start whilst their stars were rehabbing the Crusaders, but for the debacle in Melbourne against the Rebels, are now hitting top form and will again play a key role in finals. Their demolition of the Highlanders last round showed how dominating they can be in attack and there can be no doubt that on their day they have the fire power to defeat any team. The problem for the Crusaders may well be that they seem like they are two key injuries (take your pick of McCaw, Carter, Dagg and Read) from returning to their early season form.
The crystal ball: Games against the Hurricanes and the Force at home are punctuated by a trip to the Waikato to face the Chiefs. I am fairly comfortable tipping them to best the ‘Canes and to get a bonus point win against the Force (assuming they do not rest players). I think the Chiefs fixture will be a bottler and only lean to the Chiefs based on home ground advantage. Those results will see them finish on 61 points and a wild card into the finals.
Much like the Chiefs, many saw this as a season of consolidation for the Bulls after a number of player changes and few expected them to figure in finals calculations. Defying the pundits and led in no small part by Morne Steyn’s metronomic boot the Bulls sit comfortably as the second team in the South African conference. A concern coming into the finals might well be their propensity at times to give up soft points to their opponents as an average points against per round of 22.5 attests.
The crystal ball: An away fixture against the Sharks is wedged between home fixtures Cheetahs and Lions for the Bulls’ last three rounds of regular play and I expect them to win each of those encounters albeit the game against the Sharks will be a very tight tussle (and will have a large bearing on the Sharks title hopes). With bonus points from the Cheetahs and Lions games I predict the Bulls will finish on 63 points and secure a wild card into the finals.
Another surprise packet this year, the Brumbies lead the Australian competition. Much has been made of the new coaching structure at the Brumbies this year with Jake White taking the reigns and, looking at their list, much kudos must go to him. Equally the Brumbies possess a quality forward pack so perhaps it is trite now to express too much surprise at their winning ways. The only question mark that may sit over the Brumbies finals campaign is that they seem to lose the odd close game here and there from winning positions.
The crystal ball: Much like the Stormers, the Brumbies have a moderately light path to the finals with away games against the Force and the Waratahs followed by a home finale against the Blues. I cannot see them losing any of these games and expect them to pick up a bonus point against the Blues to end the season on 62 points and as winner of the Australian conference.
Another of the overachieving teams this season, the Hurricanes now find themselves right in the mix for the final wild card spot in the top six. They are an attacking outfit and in Beauden Barrett may have found one of the emerging players of the tournament. The main question mark over their season so far is their defence which gives up over 27 points a game. It must also be said that they are yet to record a victory over any of the teams above them on the table.
The crystal ball: It is a tough road home for the Hurricanes with the only respite a bye sandwiched between home games against the Crusaders and the Chiefs. Aside from the four points on offer for the bye, I do not expect them to trouble the Crusaders or the Chiefs and thus predict they will finish the season on 49 points and out of the race for the wild card.
The Springbok’s front row, a French fly half and an electric back three make John Plumtree’s men a difficult proposition for any team to face. A four game winning streak, including a defeat of the Stormers, up until last round’s fixture showed how dominant the Sharks can be when they are on their game. Conversely, losses to the Lions and the Waratahs have shown them to be fragile when they are not focused.
The crystal ball: Following a round 16 bye, the Sharks have home games against the Bulls and the Cheetahs to end the season. I am tipping them to pick up a bonus point win against the Cheetahs but the main game for them will be against the Bulls in round 17. If they can win that game they will control their own destiny; if they do not they will need to rely on other results. Either way it will be a tight game and right now I am tipping the Bulls in a close one with the Sharks picking up a bonus point. That would leave the Sharks on 55 points on the heels of the Reds for the last wild card spot.
The men from Dunedin are another of those teams that have defied the critics this season. Well coached by Jamie Joseph and with some of the more staunch supporters in the competition behind them, they have exceeded expectations despite losing some key players to injury during the season. Their win over the Bulls in round 13 showed that they can grit out tough matches. Since then they were pretty ordinary in victory against the Blues and then were blown away by the Crusaders. This raises the concern that they may just have run out of gas.
The crystal ball: A last round bye follows a home fixture against the Chiefs and a visit across the ditch to face the Reds for the Highlanders. Coming off the break, I think they might just surprise the Chiefs at home in a close game but then think they may struggle against the Reds who have it all to play for. All things considered, including a bonus point from a loss to the Reds, I predict the Highlanders will finish the season on 53 points and out of the wild card race.
The 2011 Champions started the season with uninspiring victories in local derbies and then were crippled by injuries to key players as their season seemed to go down the gurgler with a thumping loss to the Force in round 6. Since then they have defeated the leaders of the Australian conference twice and the leader of the New Zealand conference. Despite that the most important game for their season may well have been their 4 point loss to the Crusaders which gave the Reds a blue print for how they needed to play for the rest of season. The big question marks will now be how they will fare without their talismatic captain, James Horwill, and whether the enigmatic Cooper can find form.
The crystal ball: The run to the finals sees the Reds travel to Melbourne first to take on the Rebels and then face the Highlanders and the Waratahs in home fixtures to round out the season. Whilst the Reds inability to score points continues to concern I predict that they will win each of these games. I do not think they will glean any bonus points from these games however which will leave them on 56 points and just scraping into the last wild card spot.
Shumpty’s Top 6
After all of that analysis the top six I come up with is:
The game in the run home that is most likely to have the largest impact on the identity of the number six slot is the Sharks v Bulls fixture in round 17. One thing that also cannot be discounted in all of this is the impact that injuries during the test match period might have on the make-up of some the teams going into the last three rounds.
Whatever happens, one thing is for certain and that is that there is some exciting rugby to come in season 2012. I, for one, can’t wait to see what happens!