Cape Town - Quarter-finals abroad for two South African teams, the Stormers and Sharks … with the latter playing the now highly likely winners of the SA conference, the Jaguares, in Buenos Aires.
That is my call, despite the obvious hazards involved in anticipating what happens in three further rounds of ordinary season, for the opening round of knockout play in Super Rugby 2019.
The Stormers, as predicted runners-up in the SA group, will travel the “other” way on the planet, meanwhile, and face the Brumbies in their quarter-final in Canberra.
It is going to take a mathematical miracle from here for the Crusaders, defending champions and sporting a 13-point cushion over nearest challengers the Hurricanes, to be deprived of top-placed finish overall once more, so virtually take that status for granted now.
By Sport24’s predictive exercise, they will host a home quarter-final against compatriots the Highlanders, who will sneak into the playoffs in the last berth of eighth: the ‘Saders, of course, would also then have rights to both a home semi and potential Christchurch showpiece (July 6) if they duly advance.
There will be another NZ-staged quarter-final, we estimate, with the Hurricanes - who will be artificially condemned to fourth overall despite probably warranting better than that - entertaining the possibly fifth-finishing Rebels.
That is because the closing pecking order (the top eight in the competition officially make the cut) could look like this, including our predicted final ordinary-season points tallies: 1 Crusaders (62pts), 2 Jaguares (49), 3 Brumbies (44), 4 Highlanders (49, and not enabled by structural stipulations to end higher), 5 Rebels (41), 6 Stormers (40), 7 Sharks (39), 8 Highlanders (38).
There are some reasonably “safe” results to predict in what is left of the pre-knockout phase ... though also a few stinkers that could go either way, potentially wreaking havoc with our QFs scenario.
The exercise is also made more perilous because, as things stand, you could suggest that only two teams, perhaps, can be deemed right out of playoffs contention: the Sunwolves (definitely, as they are stuck firmly to the basement on 12 points) and the Reds (24 points).
But the Waratahs and Blues (26) and Chiefs (27 - and in their case just two games left) can only be considered outsiders from here to wriggle through the funnel.
That probably leave the current top 10 teams on the ladder fighting it out for the eight berths, and both the Bulls (still two games in formidable New Zealand to tackle) and Lions (tough run-in, even if they manage to knock the Stormers over in Johannesburg on Saturday) run a high risk of missing out.
Considering the resurgent form of the Capetonians, the derby looks extremely “50-50” despite the Lions’ Highveld advantage at the weekend, and Swys de Bruin’s charges are also no guarantees to beat either of the Hurricanes (home) or Bulls (away) thereafter - especially if inspirational regular captain Warren Whiteley’s frustrating injury woes drag on.
The Stormers, currently level with the Lions on 30 points, could quite feasibly still overhaul them even if they lose on Saturday.
That is because in our anticipated model for them over the next three weeks, they will shift from 30 to 40 points: a losing bonus point (at least?) from the pivotal Lions clash, a full house of five from the frail Sunwolves at Newlands, and then a basic win, debatably, in a nail-biting closing fixture against the Sharks, also with home advantage.
We see the Sharks picking up six more log points from here (to go to 39): a tight victory over the Hurricanes at Kings Park on Saturday - though that result going the other way is entirely possible - plus losing bonus points from each of the next dates against the Jaguares and Stormers, both on enemy terrain.
Should the KwaZulu-Natalians progress safely to the quarter-finals, they could well be playing the Jaguares on the other side of the Atlantic for the second time in a fortnight, which would be a relatively tough ask in time-zone-disruption terms.
Lions? Perhaps some 36 points from here is their best prospect, and that ought not to be quite enough to qualify. That said, they are far from a necessarily spent force yet, either.
The eventual South African pecking order, and how many teams from the conference will progress, also depends quite strongly, of course, on several results from remaining matches featuring teams from the other two conferences, so we will not pretend this is a scientific exercise.
Nevertheless, a reminder of those QFs we fancy will transpire: Crusaders v Highlanders, Christchurch; Jaguares v Sharks, Buenos Aires; Brumbies v Stormers, Canberra; Hurricanes v Rebels, Wellington.
*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing