WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) — Almost everything remains up for grabs in Super Rugby's last round of the regular season, including overall top spot which may be forfeited by the Johannesburg-based Lions.
Six of the eight quarterfinalists have already been confirmed — the Lions and Stormers from South Africa and the Chiefs, Crusaders, Highlanders and Hurricanes from New Zealand. The weekend's 17th round will determine whether the ACT Brumbies or New South Wales Waratahs capture the only playoff place available in Australia and whether the Pretoria-based Bulls or Durban-based Sharks claim the wildcard spot in South Africa.
Almost every match in the round involving the leading teams will help to determine who plays who and where in the quarterfinals.
The competition remains so tight after 17 rounds that the top seven teams on the combined standings are in range of the first-place Lions, who have 52 points.
The decision of Lions' coach Johann Ackermann to rest 15 of his leading players from his lineup to play Argentina's Jaguares on Saturday means he's prepared to put first place in jeopardy.
The Jaguares have won only three matches in their debut season but their most-recent win, two rounds ago, was over the Bulls and they have the ability at home to upset a weakened Lions team.
That could mean any of the next six teams, including the seventh-place Hurricanes, could snatch top spot depending on the outcome of other matches.
Ackermann has reasoned that travel from Johannesburg to Buenos Aires would take too heavy a toll on his top players only a week before the quarterfinals.
The Lions have already made a home quarterfinal secure and Ackermann can argue that unless they win that match, the feat of finishing first at the end of the regular season would have more academic than practical significance.
However, there is value in securing first place as it ensures them home advantage as long as they remain alive in the playoffs.
"The 15 players that stay behind (in Johannesburg) will have time to work hard physically for the next round of important Super Rugby matches that lie ahead," Ackermann said. "It also gives us the chance to do some medical rehabilitation with some of them.
"With the long traveling hours to Argentina one loses a lot of time that could have been spent working with these players. That being said, we have a lot of faith in the players that we send to Argentina."
The last round begins with a match in Auckland between the Blues and the Waratahs, who might have to win with a bonus point to head off the Brumbies and claim top spot in the Australian conference.
The Brumbies and Waratahs are tied on 39 points. The Canberra-based Brumbies, who play the Western Force on Saturday, are hanging on to first place with a superior win-loss record but are coming off a 40-15 loss to the Blues.
The Chiefs lead in New Zealand — a point behind the Lions on the combined table but only a point ahead of the Crusaders and three points ahead of the Highlanders and Hurricanes in their own conference.
The Chiefs play the defending champion Highlanders and the Crusaders face the Hurricanes in derby matches which are likely to be all the more ferociously contested for the competition points and placings that are still at stake.
The Sharks and the Bulls are separated by only two points in South Africa and both have the chance to join the Lions and the Cape Town-based Stormers in the playoffs. With 39 points to the Bulls' 37, the Sharks are more likely to progress as they face Japan's Sunwolves while the Bulls face the Bloemfontein-based Cheetahs.
Whoever wins, they will have to travel for their quarterfinal while the Lions and Stormers play at home.
The winners of the Australian and New Zealand conferences will also have home advantage in the quarterfinals while three New Zealand teams will travel.