Mathematically possible, but we won’t see four NZ qualifiers; the ROAR
July 02, 2014, 06:26:52
What a return to Super Rugby! Last week I said I felt a bit ‘ho hum’ about getting back into the final rounds of the provincial circuit after the June internationals, but it didn’t take long for the games to consume me.
What a round it turned out to be. With the Chiefs losing to the Highlanders, and the Blues’ big win over the Force in Perth, suddenly the Auckland-based side is back in with a chance of qualifying for the finals.
I honestly thought they were gone two rounds ago, but the cards have really fallen in their favour.
Remarkably, we now have the situation where all five New Zealand sides can reach the playoffs, something that’s never happened in the three years of the conference format. The conference lead won’t be settled this week either.
With this unpredictability and re-emergence has come the train of thought that perhaps we could see an unprecedented four sides from the one conference playing finals football.
But while it is certainly mathematically possible, I don’t think it will happen.
For one, while all five are currently in contention, it’s also possible that three could miss out. In revisiting my mid-season qualifier projections, and recalculating them based on the current points tally, the Force snuck into sixth spot at the expense of the Hurricanes.
What is interesting is that likely and even possible New Zealand qualifiers are far from settled.
The Crusaders might seem best placed to take out the conference, but they could also miss the finals completely.
The Highlanders could also top the conference if they win both their remaining games, but courtesy of the four-point gap currently between the Brumbies in sixth and the Force in seventh, it’s unlikely the Highlanders would drop out of the six completely if they shelled both games. It could happen, of course, but it would take freak events to occur.
Should those freak events happen, the Hurricanes can top the New Zealand conference. It would involve the ‘Canes beating the Chiefs at home, and both the Crusaders and Highlanders losing this week coming and then drawing their final round clash in Christchurch, but it could happen. Such a set of circumstances would also result in the Blues qualifying, and Highlanders missing out if the points differentials remain in a similar state as they are now.
Confused yet? I’m not surprised; it gave me a headache just trying to crunch the numbers.
The biggest hurdle to achieving four New Zealand qualifiers is the fact they all play each other over the remaining two rounds. The Brumbies and Force sitting in the middle of them all doesn’t help the cause, either.
The Crusaders play both their remaining games (Blues and Highlanders) at home, and given well over 70 per cent of this year’s Super Rugby games have been won by the home team, this presents the biggest advantage toward finishing in top spot in the conference.
The Highlanders, by contrast, play both the Waratahs and Crusaders away.
Given the way all the relevant teams are playing currently, everything points towards a final round decider where the winner of the Crusaders versus Highlanders game tops the conference. The Crusaders currently have one more win than the Highlanders, and also enjoy a 76-point advantage in the differential column.
But while the Highlanders might be up against it playing the Waratahs in Sydney this coming Sunday, I give them a real chance to topple the Crusaders in the last round. The Crusaders only prevailed in their first outing six weeks ago by virtue of a miracle Israel Dagg tackle and an eagle-eyed TMO, who didn’t believe any blade of tryline grass touched the ball before it came into contact with the touchline.
Whatever the result in the Round 19 ‘decider’, the winner will have earned the likely New Zealand conference title.
The Hurricanes need to beat the Chiefs in Hamilton on Friday night – with a bonus point, ideally – and then sit back and hope not too many teams overrun them in the final round while they put the feet up with the bye. They could still qualify if they lose this round, but bonus points for other teams could be enough to knock them out.
For the Blues and the Chiefs, they’re in the same boat as the Brumbies and Force; win all games and they can qualify, but lose one and they’re probably gone. And like the Brumbies and Force, the Blues and Chiefs also face off in the final round and, depending on how results go, we could see a scenario where both games produce a qualifier.
Realistically though, the current four-point gap back to the Blues and Chiefs will work against them, regardless of what happens in that final-round clash.
Top six prediction, with two rounds to go: Waratahs, Sharks, Crusaders, Highlanders, Hurricanes, and Brumbies.