There will be three SA teams
The league phase of the Vodacom Super Rugby season could not be poised for a more exciting climax, but the smart money must surely be on South African teams dominating the list of participants in the Finals Series that starts next week.
The Stormers are the only local side assured of a continuation of their Super Rugby campaign beyond this week, but it’s going to have to require the Bulls and Sharks to take their eye off the ball in a big way if they are not to occupy positions No 5 and No 6, regardless of in which order.
A word of warning to both though – all this talk of not wanting a bonus point in order to avoid a trip to Christchurch is a thought that needs to be postponed to Saturday. The Reds, one point behind both teams, have more wins on their record for the season – 10 against nine – and will be the team to advance if they end up in a tie with either of the South African sides.
Fortunately for both the Bulls and Sharks, the Reds' match against the Waratahs takes place earlier on Saturday, so they will know what is needed by the time the double header of SA derbies starts with the Sharks and Cheetahs clashing at 5.05pm.
Indeed, the weekend is set up nicely for all the South African sides in terms of being in a position where they need to know what to aim for when they swing into action on Saturday afternoon. The Stormers will know whether there is any point in chasing a bonus point win against the Rebels as early as Friday morning.
That is when the Hurricanes host the Chiefs in what looks the most interesting game of the weekend. If the Chiefs win with a bonus point, the Stormers will not be able to challenge for top place on the overall log. If the Chiefs don’t win with a bonus point, but win, the Stormers will need to win and score four tries. If the Chiefs lose to their north island rivals, the Stormers will only need to beat the Rebels.
The other game which could have an impact on the Stormers also takes place before theirs kicks off. The Brumbies start the Saturday action by hosting the Blues, and they need a full house of five log points to challenge the Stormers’ position in the top two. Anything less than that won’t be enough, and even if they do get the five points, it will leave the Stormers needing just a bonus point from the Rebels match.
Of the Sharks and Bulls, it is probably the latter who are in the best position, for they play the final game of the league phase and will know exactly what is needed. And considering that a few years ago the Bulls needed to win by an unlikely massive score to book home advantage in the playoffs, it will be quite hilarious if they now find themselves wanting to win by as small a margin as possible.
It all makes for an intriguing finish to the league stage of competition, with very few games down for decision in this round that won’t have an impact on where everyone finishes and who plays where. And then there are also the games where there will be the emotion of long time stalwarts saying goodbye, with Nathan Sharpe sure to inspire the Force to a big effort in Christchurch and Stirling Mortlock the same to the Rebels in Cape Town.
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PREVIEWS AND PREDICTIONS (all times CAT, SA, GMT+2)
HURRICANES v CHIEFS (Wellington, Friday 9:35am)
Victor Vito is back for the Hurricanes and that is a big boost for them. The Chiefs are losing Sonny Bill Williams, but he will still be there for this game, and should add his incomparable skill levels to what should be a quality game, and possibly also the most entertaining clash, of the weekend. The Hurricanes need five points to stay in contention and the Chiefs want five to knock the Stormers out of contention for top spot, so we should expect a lot of tries. In my book the Chiefs have a slight edge, even away from home.
Prediction: Chiefs to scrape it but in doing so score four tries and thus ensure top place.
BRUMBIES v BLUES (Canberra, Saturday 7:35am)
The Blues are running into late season form and are starting to become the unpredictable team that could be a problem for Jake White’s Brumbies. The Brumbies though need just one log point to ensure top spot in the Australian conference, and it will be a surprise if they don’t manage at least that. It should be close though, with plenty nails being gnawed by both Brumbies and Reds fans.
Prediction: Brumbies by 1 to 7 but won’t get four tries to challenge Stormers’ second spot.
CRUSADERS v WESTERN FORCE (Christchurch, Saturday 9:35am)
Richie McCaw is back at No 8 because of the injury to Kieran Read and the Crusaders have been forced to make three changes, but they need to win to be sure of fourth, and they are playing at home. Yes, they lost to the Hurricanes there a few weeks back, but they are unlikely to be caught out two games in succession, and while the Force will be trying to do something special in Nathan Sharpe’s last match, they just don’t have the class of the Hurricanes.
Prediction: Crusaders to win comfortably and secure fourth spot.
REDS v WARATAHS (Brisbane, Saturday 11:40am)
The Reds have Digby Ioane back and need to win and score four tries to challenge for a place in the top six and push the Brumbies in the Australian conference. They will know by the start where they stand regarding the Brumbies – it’s likely they will be playing just for a top six spot. At home they should be able to both win and get those four tries, but in Aussie derbies there is a tendency for teams to drag each other down so you never know.
Prediction: Reds to win with a bonus point.
DHL STORMERS v MELBOURNE REBELS (Cape Town, Saturday 3pm)
The Stormers are well placed on the log and their second successive SA conference title is a notable achievement, but their chances of backing that platform up are delicately balanced given the injuries at loose-forward. A lot of focus will be directed at hooker Deon Fourie’s performance at his new position of No 8. The Stormers should win comfortably and if it is a dry day they should score four tries. The first game of the weekend will determine whether that is what they need to aim at. If the Chiefs have shut them out and the Brumbies haven’t picked up five against the Blues, this should be an opportunity for Allister Coetzee to experiment. And if I was him I would try Andries Bekker at No 8 in the second half…
- Stormers team announcement
Prediction: Stormers by 15 with four-try bonus point.
SHARKS v TOYOTA CHEETAHS (Durban, Saturday 5:05pm)
The Sharks team wasn’t to hand at the time of writing but with most of the stalwarts fit again it should be a strong one. The Cheetahs used to be a hoodoo team for the Sharks, but the Sharks appear to have shaken off the jinx just recently. Still, this is one of those funny games where no-one seems quite sure of what the Sharks should be aiming at, and if the Cheetahs were to shock them at their home ground in what is essentially an eliminator, it wouldn’t be the first time it has happened…
- Cheetahs team announcement
Prediction: Sharks by 8 to 14 with bonus point (the Reds will force them to chase a full house).
VODACOM BULLS v MTN LIONS (Pretoria, Saturday 7:10pm)
Come on, the Bulls only know one way to play, and that is to win, and win by as big a margin as possible. So even if they are better off not thumping the Lions, they probably will, and so they should, for just recently their form has been patchy and they are looking more and more like the team we thought they would be at the start of the season – in other words one that loses six matches in the league phase. Wilhelm Steenkamp is playing for the injured Flip van der Merwe.
- Bulls team announcement
- Lions team announcement
Bulls to win comfortably and with a bonus point to clinch fifth spot.