Like every fine season of Super Rugby, all is not revealed until the final weekend of the regular season, and the 2014 campaign, and 19th tournament overall of the Southern Hemisphere’s premier provincial competition, will be no different.
However congratulations must be offered to the Waratahs, who offered one piece of clarity over the weekend with their 44-16 win over the Highlanders.
With that, the Waratahs has for the first time qualified as the top-ranked team after the regular season, and become the ninth franchise in history to finish as ‘minor premiers’.
For coach Michael Cheika and his troops, this will be a significant fact even though he was quick to remind all who would listen that the Super Rugby Finals Series would be another step up for a team that looks the goods.
However, as Cheika correctly pointed out, there will be teams with more experience at this stage of the season and this is a crucial factor for potential champions.
So what did we learn as the penultimate Round wrapped up?
- The Waratahs are number one, and nothing can dislodge them from this position. It is a significant achievement as 12 of the 18 Super Rugby title winners have locked up top spot first.
- One bonus point will secure the New Zealand Conference for Todd Blackadder’s team, with the Crusaders only four competition points ahead of the Highlanders. In the event of both teams finishing level in the standings, points differential will not be a factor on account of the fact the Crusaders will have more wins (currently 10) than their Dunedin-based rivals (currently 8), thus being enough to secure the Conference.
- The Sharks and Crusaders are battling it out for second spot overall with both tied on 46 points. If both teams win with bonus points (vs Stormers and Highlanders respectively) it will come down to points accumulated through the season and the seven-time champions currently have an eight-point advantage here. If both win, but only one franchise collects a bonus point, then that team will take second spot overall and secure a home Semi Final and a week off. The other will host a Qualifier against the sixth-ranked team on the weekend of July 18-19.
- A bonus point win for the Highlanders while denying the Crusaders any bonus points will see them secure the New Zealand Conference for the first time, and will see them potentially equal their third placed regular season finish in 1999.
- Victory for the Sharks, and a loss to the Crusaders with no losing bonus point, will see the men from Durban take second spot overall and secure a home Semi Final.
- The Highlanders have almost reached the Super Rugby Final Series. The Hurricanes are one point below them but have no matches left to play, while the Brumbies (6th) play the Force (7th) and the Chiefs (8th) square off against the Blues (9th) – a perfect sequence of matches that could see Jamie Joseph’s team qualify irrespective. The only scenario in which the Highlanders could drop out of contention is a loss by more than seven points, a Chiefs win over the Blues and either the Brumbies and Force playing out a draw with each side taking an offensive bonus point, or the Force winning and the men from Canberra collecting a four try and losing bonus point.
Are you still with us?
Let’s look at each team with a week to play!
Cannot be shifted from top spot. Will sit out the first week of the Super Rugby Finals Series and will host a Semi Final at Allianz Stadim against the lowest-ranked winner from the Qualifiers. If the Finals Series were to commence today, it would mean a match agains potential wildcard teams in the Highlanders, Hurricanes or Brumbies.
The Crusaders play the Highlanders in Christchurch to round out their season, and a bonus point (even in a loss) will guarantee them second spot and the first week off, meaning they would host the highest ranked winner from the Super Rugby Qualifiers on the weekend of July 25-26.
However a heavy loss to the Highlanders and victory to the Sharks could see the Crusaders drop to fourth spot, which would still see them host a team in the opening week of the knockout stages, but would mean hitting the road in week two. As above, bonus points will play a big part in where the teams end up.
Cell C Sharks:
Confirmed as the South African Conference champions ensures the Sharks a top three berth, but a loss coupled with a Crusaders win will drop them to third and force them to play in the first week of the Super Rugby Finals Series, hosting the sixth placed wildcard team.
Victory, and a Crusaders defeat, will see the Sharks take the first week off, meaning that Growthpoint KINGS PARK would host the highest-ranked loser from the opening weekend of the Super Rugby Finals Series.
A bonus point win over the Crusaders will see the southerners potentially take the Kiwi Conference and earn the first week off, but overall results throughout Round 18 has given the Highlanders an expected boost, despite their heavy defeat in Sydney on Sunday.
The Dunedin-based franchise will qualify for the top six with a win, breaking a drought that has been in place since 2002. A Highlanders defeat, combined with a high scoring close loss for the Brumbies or a draw with four tries to each side in Canberra, could squeeze the southerners out in the most unlikely of circumstances.
The Hurricanes’ slim hopes are dependent on two key outcomes.
They must hope the Blues beat the Chiefs (without the Chiefs taking two bonus points) by less than 38 points and also hope that neither the Brumbies or Force take a bonus point.
However a win for the Chiefs will knock out the Hurricanes, with the Brumbies and Force (directly below the Wellington based team). With this Aussie duo set to square off on Friday night, one (and possibly both) can edge ahead of the Wellingtonians.
Victory for the ACT based franchise against the Force will see them move as high as fourth spot, meaning that Canberra could potentially host another match in the opening week of the Super Rugby Finals Series.
A loss will knock the side out, unless they take at least one bonus point and the Blues beat the Chiefs, which would be enough to sneak in to sixth spot. Two losing bonus points could by quirk of maths knock the Highlanders out as well unless they defeat the Crusaders.
If the Force can win in Canberra for the first time since 2011, they will create Western Australian Rugby history and play in the knockout stages for Super Rugby for the first time.
Like outlined above for the Brumbies, a loss will most likely be fatal, but they could still sneak in with losing bonus point/s on account of holding the primary tie-breaker (total wins) over the Hurricanes.
The champion’s defence is still alive, but hinges on a non-negotiable victory at Eden Park. While the Blues may be unbeaten in six matches there this season, the Chiefs will be confident with three straight wins at New Zealand’s largest rugby stadia in recent times.
A defeat, even with a bonus point, will end the two-time winner’s campaign to become just the second ever franchise to win three straight trophies.
The Blues need a bonus point victory and a winning margin of 39 points to eliminate the Chiefs and overtake the Hurricanes who are five competition points above them.
If the Force win but the Brumbies register a losing bonus point, then even a Blues triumph might not be enough to reach the top six.
Just in case you needed a formal reminder…
After the completion of the Regular Season, a three-week Super Rugby Finals Series will take place involving the three Conference winners and the three best-placed ‘wildcards’, irrespective of the Conference in which they are based.
The teams ranked 1 and 2 have a bye during the first week of the Finals series with the teams ranked 3 to 6 taking part in Qualifiers to secure a place in the Semi-Finals. Teams 1 and 2 will host home semi-finals against the two qualifier winners.
The six teams will comprise the Conference winners and the next three teams (referred to as “Wildcard” Teams) with the highest total number of points, regardless of the Conference they are from.
With each Conference winner qualifying Australia, South Africa and New Zealand will each be guaranteed at least one team participating in the finals.
|Week||Round||Match||Home Team||Away Team|
|1||Qualifier||A||Rank 4||Rank 5|
|1||Qualifier||B||Rank 3||Rank 6|
|2||Semi-final||C||Rank 2||Winner of match A or B
with highest play-off ranking
|2||Semi-final||D||Rank 1||Other winner from match A or B|
|3||Final||E||Winner of match C or D
with highest play-off ranking
|Other winner from match C or D|