Could the winner be a wild card?
So here we are at the end of the league phase of Super Rugby, with just the Finals Series to come, and it's down to six teams still in with a chance of winning the trophy.
Last year the side that finished top won the competition, which is surely a good omen for the Stormers, who completed their most successful ever campaign in the league phase of the competition by ending in pole position. But while the dice are loaded in their favour by virtue of them booking home-ground advantage for both play-off games – the 28 July semifinal and a potential final – it is a fact that the teams that finished fifth and sixth still have a chance of beating them to the trophy itself.
That seems quite bizarre if you consider the gap there was between the Stormers and the Bulls and Sharks, the two teams in fifth and sixth on the overall log, in the South African conference battle. The Stormers won four more games than both those teams and were undeniably far more consistent over the course of the competition.
If the Stormers get blown out now, there is going to be an outcry of anger and grief in the Cape, as there always is, but the way I see it, the Stormers have already over-achieved. Just look at how many current Springboks they have compared to the other two top South African teams if you disagree with that contention.
Winning 14 matches out of 16 when you have star players like Schalk Burger and Duane Vermeulen injured is a phenomenal achievement, and is a tribute to the coaching of Allister Coetzee and his assistants, not the least of those being defence coach Jacques Nienaber. It is also a result of the systems that were put in place to make it all possible by former WP senior professional coach (effectively director of rugby) Rassie Erasmus.
If the Stormers don’t make it all the way you won’t get any overreaction from this writer. They have already gone further than I expected them to, given the injuries, and if Duane Vermeulen doesn’t return for the semifinal, they may well struggle. That will be particularly so if, as expected, their semifinal opponents are the Crusaders, who are one of three teams running into form at the right time.
The others are the Sharks and the Reds, with the Reds being the only conference winner among that lot. So the question should really be couched in the following way: what chance is there that this will be the year where it is shown that a wildcard entrant into the Finals Series can go all the way? And is it fair that a side that has lost six games during regular competition still has a chance of winning the trophy?
The second question I am not so sure about. In previous years the Bulls and Sharks would have been relegated to a spectator role by now. What I am sure about, though, is that with the dice so heavily loaded against them at this stage, and that is where this competition does work as it makes it so much easier for the consistent teams that do finish near the top of the log, they would have proved their championship status if they win it.
The Bulls would probably have to either win twice successively in New Zealand, or alternatively win in Christchurch before travelling to Cape Town and then returning to New Zealand or Australia. It’s hard enough to win an away knock-out match just once without having to fly and do it twice. And the Sharks face the same scenario: beat the Reds on Saturday and they end up flying to Cape Town; win there and they go back to Australasia, unless the Bulls come through the other end of the draw.
So the odds are stacked against the two South African teams, and they probably know it. If I remember correctly Victor Matfield admitted in his book – I am overseas and don’t have it with me – that when his Bulls side lost out last year in a play-off for a wildcard spot against the Sharks, they knew that realistically their chances of going all the way from a wildcard position was bleak anyway.
If I was going to rate the chance of a wildcard team going all the way, it would be the Crusaders, by virtue of the fact that at least they are playing their first game in the Finals Series at home. And last year they proved they are a team that can win big matches on the road (though I am not sure they are as good this season as they were in 2011).
Even for them though it is a tall order. Unless the Sharks beat the Reds, winning against the Bulls may send them back to Cape Town for a repeat of last year’s semifinal, and then it will either be back to Brisbane for a repeat of last year’s decider or a flight all the way back to New Zealand to play the Chiefs in Hamilton.
But at least for them the double flight – in other words crossing the Indian Ocean in both directions twice – is not in the equation. And the probability of a double flight is why I rule against the Sharks and Bulls.