- But for Covid-19, this would have been tense final round of Super Rugby ordinary season.
- Our tip is that the Sharks would have topped the SA conference … but ended second overall.
- The injury-plagued Stormers might have sneaked a knockout berth in eighth.
This should have been, from Friday, the traditionally rollercoaster final round of ordinary season in Super Rugby 2020.
Yes, that desperate scurrying for best possible seedings for the knockout phase ... or in some cases just a last-ditch scramble to even make the crucial top-eight cut.
Instead we will never know which outfits would have got through the funnel and in what berths overall in this year’s competition, abandoned in mid-March due to the crippling global effects of the coronavirus crisis.
New Zealand now have their own, domestic mini-version of Super Rugby starting on 13 June, with Australia expected to follow suit not too long afterwards.
South Africa? Who knows: our Covid-19 curve was still anticipated to be some way off reaching its peak, so a desired avalanche of local derbies may not even occur this year as global Test-match priorities probably kick in over the coming months.
Super Rugby teams had only played either seven or six matches each (of 16) when the plug was pulled in March, but it was enough to provide a decent hint or two to the possible finishing order.
The revitalised Sharks led the way then, with 24 points from seven outings, though both the Brumbies and Crusaders were arguably better placed with 23 each from only six.
Frankly, there were already strong signs that all three would eventually win their respective regional conferences.
Also a very reasonable prospect, already, was the current top eight remaining that way to the end of the ordinary roster - the others being the Blues, Chiefs, Hurricanes, Stormers and Jaguares.
While they faced stern challenges from at least three other contenders in the ever-strong NZ conference, who would be so foolhardy as to have placed a bet against the wily, legendary Crusaders topping that group, in their pursuit of a record fourth title on the trot?
As for the Sharks, they had just made a major statement by knocking over nearest SA rivals the Stormers by 10 points in Durban ... and that against foes who were seeing frontline Springbok players crash like a house of cards to long-term injuries.
The Brumbies, meanwhile, were already a gaping 10 points clear of own nearest challengers the Rebels in the fragile Aussie group.
My gut feeling for the vital top two overall spots at the finish? Crusaders as log-toppers, ensuring later rights to a home final again, with the Sharks ending second and at very least bagging both a home quarter-final and potential Kings Park semi as well.
It is possible that the Sharks - their major Australasian tour well behind them, with some fine results - would still have been clinging to top spot entering this weekend.
That would have been especially likely if they had won a battle royale the weekend before: their home date with the ‘Saders.
Defeat, you can be pretty sure, would have a been a major blow to any log-topping aspirations by Lukhanyo Am and company.
The Sharks did have one horrible, last-round drawback too: the only side competition-wide to be on a bye, meaning a good likelihood that they could bump down a notch or two as a result.
Bear in mind that, while the Crusaders would have had to end with a bruising home derby against the Chiefs a few days beyond their long trek back from South Africa, the Brumbies had a dream last fixture: home to the weak, now tournament-exiting Sunwolves.
It is pointless trying to get too scientific, and there might yet have been room for some unexpected twists and turns in the competition, but my top three pick at the finish would have been Crusaders, Sharks and Brumbies in that order, followed by three further NZ sides in the Chiefs, Hurricanes and Blues (order of their finish just too hard to predict) and then the Jaguares in seventh.
An injury-afflicted Stormers? Limping gallantly enough across the finals-series line, in eighth, and the dubious “reward” of a likely quarter-final in Christchurch ... just off an uncompromising Loftus derby against the Bulls, into the bargain.
This would have been the last-round roster (home teams first) for the coming weekend:
Friday, 29 May
Blues v Highlanders
Brumbies v Sunwolves
Saturday, 30 May
Hurricanes v Waratahs
Crusaders v Chiefs
Rebels v Reds
Lions v Jaguares
Bulls v Stormers
*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing