Is this Super Rugby’s top six?

2012-05-03 00:00

CAPE TOWN — At the risk of readers saying “I’m sure I’ve heard that one before” my tip is for the Crusaders to snatch crucial inside lane for the 2012 Super Rugby title by ending ordinary season at the top of the overall pile.

It is hardly a revolutionary suggestion, given that the seemingly ever-competitive Cantabrians have won the competition a clear-cut record seven times.

But I like to think there is at least some element of daring to my prediction when you examine their current log position, which is sixth overall and third in the New Zealand conference.

That tends to suggest that they have a fair bit of ground to make up on the various front-runners, and they do, to some degree: they are six points adrift of the surprising tournament leaders, the Chiefs, and four behind the second-placed Stormers.

But all of the sides occupying the top six slots are relatively tightly bunched and with all but the Bulls (eight games) still to play seven matches each, there remains plenty of room for great disturbance to the pecking order.

I will also not be credited with breaking daring new ground by suspecting that, however much shuffling takes place among the leading half-dozen, they will stay the six who remain alive after the conference phase ends.

As things stand there is a fair gap between this elite and the bottom nine, although all of mid-tablers — the Sharks, Waratahs, Reds and Hurricanes — will hold on to the belief for the time being that they can yet wrestle their way into the play-offs cut.

We are not talking long-shot mathematics in their cases just yet. But it will require something close to a genuinely golden run by one or two of them if that is to occur. With the Sharks, for instance, struggling to lump together even back-to-back wins this season, what price their suddenly reeling off four or five on the trot?

There are many other variables to consider, like the perennial bogey of camp injury plagues or suspensions, plus, in this crazily crammed season, the matter of which franchises offer up the most candidates for internationals during the three-week window and how fit and mentally focused those troops will be for more Super Rugby drudgery immediately afterwards.

All those things taken into account, here are my predictions for top six teams at the conclusion of conference activity, from best-placed down.

It is arguably a reflection of the broad balance of power right now involving the three Sanzar powerhouses, with three New Zealand teams qualifying, by my theory, two from South Africa and just one from Australia this time — in 2011 there was an even spread of two each.

1. CRUSADERS (played nine, 33 points thus far)

Lurking thereabouts, it’s hardly the worst terrain for these cunning old foxes to be occupying. After all, they are past masters at knowing how to time a run. Yes, they have already lost three times, which will be a wee concern for them, but their run-in programme is probably the best of all the playoffs contenders and it is primarily for that reason that I see them advancing stealthily through the pack to assume handy pole just ahead of the finals series.

The Crusaders play five of their remaining seven obligations in Christchurch. Throw in the facts that Dan Carter is likely to get sharper and sharper, Richie McCaw is well on the mend and they are quite good at rotating their key personnel, and it’s a recipe for a compelling late charge.

Remaining fixtures: Reds (h), Rebels (a), Blues (h), bye, Highlanders (h), Hurricanes (h), Chiefs (a), Force (h).

2. STORMERS (played nine, 37 points thus far)

I am pretty resolute in my belief that the Capetonians, increasingly hard to beat even if still not quite a team of try-scoring dazzlers, will top the South African conference. In doing so they will also repeat their 2011 trick of ending second overall and at least teeing up a guaranteed home semi-final.

Four of their last seven fixtures are at Newlands, a good comfort, including a convenient last-day one against the generally lame-duck Rebels if they are jockeying especially fiercely for prime slots.

But there are also successive away derby toughies against the Sharks and Bulls to chew on, and they will not want many further injury disruptions now. Still, even finishing top overall is certainly not beyond them, such is the high level of self-belief and determination throughout their squad.

Remaining fixtures: Bye, Cheetahs (h), Waratahs (h), Sharks (a), Bulls (a), Lions (h), Cheetahs (a), Rebels (h).

3. BRUMBIES (played nine, 31 points thus far)

It is just possible that the best Australian side ahead of the finals series will effectively end sixth. But as competition rules dubiously stipulate that the top finishers in each conference must also occupy the leading three positions come what may, the Brumbies ought to end third overall. There is obviously still the threat, considering that they are only five points clear of the Waratahs and six better than still-breathing defending champions the Reds, that they will be leapfrogged in their conference. But with Jake White commendably squeezing the best out of a few ordinary staffers in their midst, they could just about hold on.

They also have no further matches against any of the current best three sides from New Zealand or South Africa’s premier two — a further fillip.

Remaining fixtures: Waratahs (h), bye, Hurricanes (a), Reds (h), Rebels (a), Force (a), Waratahs (a), Blues (h).

4. CHIEFS (played nine, 39 points thus far)

It is with some reluctance that I downgrade the plucky Chiefs — not lacking in panache or muscle, either — to a fourth-placed finish despite their current table-topping status.

But again it is largely as a result of tourney placement rules.

Nevertheless, they have been riding an unbeaten wave for so long that you have to suspect it’s got to peter out to some extent.

(It oughtn’t just yet: next up are the abject Lions, but then it gets much more taxing again.)

As much as I fancy the Crusaders to gradually shoot to the top over the next few weeks, let it be said that if the Mooloo Men prevail in key crunches with the desperate Reds (away) and Bulls and Crusaders (home), they might yet be the ones still ruling the overall roost when ordinary season ends.

Remaining fixtures: Lions (h), Reds (a), bye, Bulls (h), Blues (a), Highlanders (a), Crusaders (h), Hurricanes (a).

5. BULLS (played eight, 37 points thus far)

Some optimistic Bulls fans may disapprove of my fifth-placed suggestion for them, preferring a loftier berth.

Tell you what, though, if you’d offered it to the franchise at the start of the campaign, what with so many of their veteran iron-men quitting the corral, I bet most of their bosses would have banked it.

Much of their health in the remaining, bye-less weeks depends on how they tour abroad: even if the Rebels in Melbourne first up seems a great way to establish momentum (losing would be a significant torpedo to the hull), it is possible they may only secure one further win from the remaining three assignments overseas.

For many years the Bulls toured notably badly, until the likes of Messrs Matfield, Du Preez, Steenkamp and the two tight-five Bothas got used to it and prospered … but these men are all gone. The rebuilding Bulls will do well to match the Stormers’ 13 points in Australasia.

Remaining fixtures: Rebels (a), Waratahs (a), Highlanders (a), Chiefs (a), Stormers (h), Cheetahs (h), Sharks (a), Lions (h).

6. HIGHLANDERS (played nine, 34 points thus far)

I think we have seen enough from the Otago-based outfit to suggest they will beat the cut-off — their Houdini act in supposedly lung-busting Highveld conditions against the Cheetahs only indicated their resolve.

Certainly if they end their mini-tour of South Africa with a win over the Sharks as well, Jamie Mackintosh and company will be set very fair indeed for the playoffs, despite few obviously “easy” remaining fixtures presenting themselves.

In many other sports competitions, a last-round bye would be a hindrance: in this one, with its attached little four-point bonanza, it’s hardly the worst fate for the Highlanders,

Remaining fixtures: Sharks (a), Hurricanes (h), Bulls (h), Blues (a), Crusaders (a), Chiefs (h), Reds (a), bye.

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