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The fight for Top 6 intensifies

The break for the June internationals was a bit of a momentum killer for Super Rugby, but all things considered it was back to business pretty smartly.

Nine teams are left to fight out a place in the play-offs, but we could have our six by the end of the coming weekend.

The Chiefs have the top of the table now, but the Bulls are still breathing right down their neck and the Brumbies might feel a bit nervous as they face another weekend off. The Crusaders have strengthened their challenge, the Stormers and Sharks have just managed to keep themselves in the hunt, while the Blues and Cheetahs suffered setbacks.

One pivotal game will be between the Blues and Cheetahs. If the Cheetahs win it’s game over because with the bye in the final week, none of the chasing pack outside the top 6 will be able to catch them. If the Blues win, the door will be open, if only just, for the Blues, Sharks, and Stormers.

Here’s how I see it the contenders shaping up as we go into the final two weekends.

1) The Chiefs: Currently first, and pretty much guaranteed finishing top of the New Zealand conference (they need just one point to achieve this, either that or the Crusaders fail to take the maximum from their last two games), but their priority really is to stay top of the overall table, which won’t be easy with their remaining games against the Crusaders in Christchurch and the Blues at Eden Park.

They really “only” have to match what the Bulls do, but that won’t be easy. They have already beaten the Crusaders once this season, but this weekend in Christchurch will be a whole lot tougher.

2) The Bulls: Poised to strike for the top of the table after an easy win over the Kings. Factor in the Cheetahs loss and there’s now no doubt they’ll top the South African conference. Overall they are ahead of the Brumbies on points diff with a game in hand. Two tough SA derbies ahead though, against teams (Sharks and Stormers) still just in the running, although they may not be come kickoff.

They need one more win and a bonus point to claim second place overall and a home semi, but they’ll be set on finishing top of the log and be at home for the play-offs. A tough ask, but certainly achievable in a season that might be their best shot at a title for a few seasons to come, given the number of players leaving. All due respect to the Chiefs but an away game against the Bulls or Crusaders are what teams least want in the play-offs.

3) The Brumbies: Will almost certainly top the Aussie conference, given the manner in which their only remaining opponents, the Force succumbed to the Waratahs last time out, although who knows what shape some of their Wallabies will be in after the Lions series. Could be pipped for the Aussie conference by the Reds but I doubt it. The question is can they keep a spot in the top two? For that to happen the Chiefs and Bulls will need to lose at least one of their remaining games.

4) The Reds: Just one game left, and it’s in Sydney against a Waratahs team that are now out of the running, but would probably love nothing better than to throw a spanner in the works of their interstate rivals. Win, and they could finish as high as third (fourth more realistic), lose and they’ll probably still sneak into the six. Will have a clearer idea of their chances after next weeks penultimate round. You wouldn’t want to play them in Brisbane, it’s hard to win there, a) because they’re an outstanding team and b) because “things” tend to go their way at home.

5) The Crusaders: They have two home games against the Chiefs and Canes, and while the Chiefs have certainly had their measure in the last year or so, you wouldn’t bet your house against the ‘Saders winning both. However I still can’t see them pipping the Chiefs for top of the NZ conference and the more likely scenario is they’ll finish fourth or fifth. They are not the Crusaders of old, but they have a great forward pack and they have Dan Carter, which still makes them a huge threat, especially if they are at home, where “things” tend to go their way, too.

6) The Cheetahs: their loss to the Stormers was one they really didn’t need, and means even if they make it they’ll almost certainly be facing a trip away for their playoff match. The heat is now on them to beat the Blues this week. Do that, the last round bye becomes their best friend, and they’re in. Lose to the Blues and the palms will get sweaty the following weekend as they watch, unable to wield any influence.

7) Waratahs: Are in seventh, but now surely out of the reckoning because the most they can get is 49 and the bye means the Cheetahs are guaranteed 50. Their lack of bonus points has killed them.

8) The Blues: fought back valiantly, only to be pipped by the Sharks. Still not out of the running…if they could beat the Cheetahs they’d return home knowing a win at Eden Park against the Chiefs would get them in. Unlikely but possible.

9) The Sharks: still mathematically in it, but won’t be if they lose to the Bulls this weekend. Win their last two and grab a bonus point or two and they could sneak in.

10) The Stormers: still mathematically in it, but won’t be if they lose to the Bulls the following weekend. Win their last two and grab a bonus point of two and they could sneak in….(don’t you just love copy and paste?) So my prediction for the top 6 in a fortnight? In order, Chiefs, Bulls (and yes, you Bulls fans, it could WELL be the other way around), Brumbies, Crusaders, Reds, Cheetahs.

Finally a few notes from elsewhere.

+ The IRB Sevens World Cup tournament was held in Moscow. The IRB have done a great job growing the game globally through Sevens, resulting in it being included in the Olympics which is a massive coup. But in staging this showcase tournament in a city that either did not know about it, did not care about it, or couldn’t afford to go to it, a risk has backfired on them.

Conquering Moscow is not easy. History tells us this.

And what is the story with the draw? Why did New Zealand, South Africa and Fiji, who finished one, two and three in the HSBC World Series, plus defending champions Wales all end up on the same side of the play-off draw?

Still in was a great tournament for New Zealand, winning both men's and women's…I hope you don’t mind me mentioning that. 

+ The Lions tour of Australia will come to a climax this week after a second test that managed to be utterly enthralling, despite being of rather poor quality.

The final week has been marred by the farcical handling of the Jame Horwill citing.

How he got away with treading on the face of the Lions lock I do not know, but once that decision was made the IRB should have stayed out of it.

The suspicion is that, just like last year when Adam Thomson was banned for a similar offence, the IRB were goaded into a review of the decision by the howling of the British media.

Remind us again, who is running this game?

For what it’s worth, I think the Wallabies will get the prize…the team that wins the second test has won seven of the last 8 Lions series.

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