The final weekend of Super Rugby log play vindicates the adaptations adopted last year by the ruling body. The last weeks of the 2011 competition had become sterile with too many teams unable to reach the semifinals, but this year there are still eight teams in with a chance of winning the tournament.
The most consistent sides of the year, the Chiefs and the Stormers, occupy the top two positions and that should remain the case at the conclusion of the weekend.
The third-placed Brumbies could improve their position, but it would require the Stormers to lose to the Rebels in Cape Town, an unlikely situation.
So it should be the case that the Chiefs and Stormers will benefit from a week off while the other sides battle it out for the honour of playing them in the semis.
After a slow start to the season, the Crusaders look like the best of the rest and they should pick up full points against the Force in Christchurch. That puts the onus on the Brumbies to win their final match against the Blues in Canberra if the status quo is to be maintained.
The battle for the last two spots will be fierce because four teams – the Bulls, Sharks, Hurricanes and Reds – all still in with a chance. It is always unwise to write off the fifth-placed Bulls, but they have lost four of their last five games, which is not the stuff of which champions are made. It may be that the self-belief that camouflaged the loss of so many stalwarts at the beginning of the season has begun to wane at precisely the wrong moment.
The Sharks, on the other hand, may have found their mojo in the nick of time. John Plumtree’s men have been unconvincing all season, but insiders spotted an unusual tension in the dressing room ahead of last week’s encounter with the Bulls. It seemed that the happy-go-lucky Sharks understood the gravity of the situation: defeat would have ended their interest in the competition.
The irresistible manner of victory will have been noted by the other sides still in the mix. If the Sharks can rouse themselves to do something similar to the Cheetahs this weekend and if the Bulls can hold off the Lions at Loftus, the dream of having three South African sides in the play-offs could become a reality.
Almost certainly it will come down to bonus points. The Bulls and Sharks lead the Reds and Hurricanes by 54 to 53. The Reds have to beat their traditional rivals, the Waratahs, in Brisbane to progress. The Hurricanes can do the Stormers a favour by beating the Chiefs in Wellington. Defeat for the Chiefs would mean that a Stormers win against the Rebels would guarantee them first place at the end of log play. That would give them a home semifinal and the possibility of a home final.
If, on the other hand, the Chiefs win in Wellington, the Stormers face a much tougher prospect. Four tries from the Chiefs would mean the Stormers could finish no higher than second, which is why few observers could understand the conservative mindset on display against the Cheetahs in Bloemfontein last week. The weight of expectation seemed to stymie Allister Coetzee’s charges at the very moment when they needed to throw down the gauntlet to the other competing sides.
Where was the urgency? The defeat of the Chiefs by the Crusaders had opened the way to the top spot, but the Stormers played as if that scenario was the furthest thing from their minds. An aimless kicking game and too much respect for the opposition closed down their avenues of expression and revealed to all and sundry a deep-seated inferiority complex that belies their success for the past two years.
By contrast, the Sharks threw the kitchen sink at the Bulls, scored the bonus-point try in the last five minutes and were rewarded with a path to the play-offs that may yet involve some fine mathematical skills. That is because, in the playoffs, the third-placed team plays the side that finished sixth, and fourth plays fifth.
Few would relish a trip to Christchurch to play the Crusaders, the very scenario that ended the Sharks’ participation last year.
Instead, the carrot for the lower-ranked sides must be a visit to Canberra to play the Brumbies. The idea, then, is to finish sixth rather than fifth, unless the Brumbies lose to the Blues, in which case it is the other way around.
Jake White would not agree with this logic, for he has turned a no-name Brumbies team into genuine title contenders. The idea that they might lose twice at home after such a stirring campaign will not have crossed his mind. White would relish the chance to beat either the Sharks or the Bulls in Canberra and show the South African Rugby Union how much he still has to offer.
Either way, we are in for an entrancing weekend of action.