Fates in the balance as Super Rugby heads toward playoffs
WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) — The fate of several teams vying for places in the Super Rugby playoffs is likely to be sealed in this weekend's 16th round.
If the Chiefs can't beat the Crusaders in Fiji, if the Waratahs can't beat the Rebels in Australia, and if the Stormers can't beat the Lions in South Africa, their campaigns are likely over.
Some of those teams remain alive in the playoff race only in a mathematical sense, dependent on the outcome of other matches. Others with stronger playoffs claims will also not sleep easy over the last few weeks of the regular season as they wait to see how a tight contest for the top-eight evolves.
The contest for first place in the New Zealand conference is over: the defending champion Crusaders are too far ahead realistically to be caught by the second-placed Hurricanes. In Australia and South Africa those contests remain very much alive and of singular importance as conference winners enjoy home advantage at least through the first round of playoffs.
The Crusaders and Chiefs arrived in Suva on Wednesday, greeted by several hundred fans at the airport. It is the fourth year in a row that Fiji will host a Super Rugby match.
The ACT Brumbies hold a one-point lead over the Melbourne Rebels in Australia and should go close to clinching first place when they play the Sunwolves this weekend while the Rebels have a tougher task against the New South Wales Waratahs.
The Rebels are still in a strong position to capture a playoff spot and can put an end to the Waratahs hopes this weekend. The Waratahs are struggling to reach the playoffs for the second straight year, needing to beat the Rebels, the Brumbies and the Dunedin-based Highlanders to lift themselves from their current 12th place into the top eight.
"We're definitely still in the hunt," Waratahs prop Tom Robertson said. "The two (Australian) teams that are above us in the ladder, we play them. So if we get two wins or two bonus-point wins, it sort of soaks them of four or five points.
"So it'll be a big last three games. We'll definitely have to do the job in all three but I'm still a big believer that we can make the finals."
The Jaguares top the South African conference after away wins over the Wellington-based Hurricanes and the Waratahs. They have another chance to bank an away win, and to seal a quarterfinal in Buenos Aires, when they take on the Queensland Reds on Saturday before returning home to play the Durban-based Sharks and Sunwolves.
The Sharks, Pretoria-based Bulls and Johanesburg-based Lions are currently all inside the top eight but not yet certain of remaining there. The Cape Town-based Stormers are just outside and could easily displace one of their compatriot teams, starting this weekend against the Lions.
The Lions have been finalists in each of the last three seasons but are facing a much tougher struggle to assert themselves this year in a tight South African conference. They made a slow start to the season, losing to the Stormers in round two, and now need to overcome a tough finish to feature again in the playoffs.
"We didn't have the best of starts this year but it's not how you start that matters, it's how you end that is important," Stormers fullback Andries Coetzee said. "The next three matches (against the Stormers, Hurricanes and Bulls) are a great challenge for us.
"We can look back at that Newlands game (against the Stormers in round two) and say 'we should have, could have'... but it was out of our hands and we lost. The Stormers will be a confident team and they'll come out guns blazing."