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The top eight teams have emerged

There are still three or four games to go before the Super Rugby playoffs, but we appear to have our top eight.

The Lions will top the combined African group. They are purring along beautifully, having laid waste to the Bulls at the weekend. The Bulls not only need a new coach, they need a new coaching ideology.

A standout performer for the Lions was Franco Mostert, who made a stunning run onto a short pass from Elton Jantjies to then produce a hook shot pass to Ruan Dreyer, running up fat man's alley for a truly spectacular try.

Mostert has been great again this season, and with Eben Etzebeth now a guaranteed wind-up, the Lions man is arguably, on current form, South Africa's best lock.

The Stormers will no doubt top the other conference, because the Bulls are not going to get maximum points from their remaining games. The pool might not be as strong as Africa 2, but it is still a worthy position, especially considering that they have now beaten two New Zealand teams, a feat for which they stand alone.

I’m not buying into the argument that the Lions will struggle for not having played New Zealand teams when it comes to the knockout phase.

Has it helped them to their current position? Absolutely it has, but they had success against New Zealand teams home and away last year, and have a style that is a hybrid of their own traditional strengths and bits gleaned from elsewhere, including New Zealand. They’re a progressive team, a great unit, and they are just a Crusaders slip up from claiming top spot.

The Sharks will almost certainly grab the African wildcard. They have a 14-point lead over the Jaguares with three home games to play against the Stormers, Bulls and Lions. They have been a bit inconsistent, but nowhere near as much as the Argentinians, who have been downright maddening.

Right now the only place a team would rather less travel to than Ellis Park is AMI Stadium in Christchurch.

The Crusaders have the bit between their teeth trying to stay top (not that they’re admitting to anything other than taking it “a game at a time”) and remain unbeaten after edging the Chiefs in Suva. It was a great game in excellent conditions in front of a big, happy crowd, an occasion that highlighted what Super Rugby is missing out on for it’s snooty attitude towards a Pacific Islands team.

I’m not sure anyone saw this coming at the start of the season, but the Crusaders have gone from strength to strength, and are better at playing the big moments in big games than any other team in the competition right now, which is remarkable given the key players they have had to live without at times, and the youth of their backline.

And yet still they are guaranteed nothing other than a place in the knockout phase.

The Hurricanes and Chiefs are eleven points behind but with a game in hand.

The Hurricanes have moved into second on points differential as they head to Pretoria, having busted out all over the place after a relatively even first half an hour against a Cheetahs team that just fell apart against the constant threat of the powerful young Canes backline.

The fourth New Zealand qualifier will be the Highlanders, who completed a very successful and altogether eventful road trip with a crushing win over a Force team just back from a gruelling round the world trip.

The Blues are still in the hunt mathematically, but it will be hard for them now after their defeat in Cape Town. More on that, of course, to come.

To add to their sense of frustration is the fact that the Blues, who have definitely improved this season, have nine points more than the top Australian team, the Brumbies, not to mention a 54-point superior differential, and yet they will have to watch the Brumbies play at home in the quarterfinals, a ludicrous scenario.

In Australia it simply becomes a race for top of the conference, because even the leaders are 18 points out of the wildcard picture.

The Brumbies continue to grind out the wins, no matter how stultifying they might be, but their lead is narrow and the Waratahs are still very much alive after smashing the Rebels. Given their playing roster and their resources the Sydneysiders should be comfortably ahead in this group, but instead they are on thin ice as they head for two games in New Zealand, where no Australian team has won since round 10 in 2015.

The Reds are still in the hunt, mathematically at least, and believe it or not so too are the Force and the Rebels, although the fire does appear to have gone well and truly out on those two now.

It’s hard to see anyone else breaking into that eight, and the big interest now is in who will top the mythical combined log and earn home advantage through to a final.

I don’t imagine anyone would fancy either Ellis Park or AMI Stadium in Christchurch, but if the playoffs started tomorrow, the Crusaders would host the Sharks, the Lions the Highlanders, the Stormers against the Chiefs and the Brumbies would host the Hurricanes. But that will change, no question.

It just remains to offer comment on the Blues v Stormers game.

To do so, of course, is to risk opening the usual can of worms, and an invitation to dig up the events of last week, three weeks ago, three years ago, six years ago (especially), and beyond.

But the officiating of this game was not great.

It was acknowledged in this column that during their New Zealand visit the Stormers copped some rough decisions, although in matches lost by 33, 43 and 19 points it would be a stretch to say they were game-changers.

It’s not to say the Stormers didn’t cop a couple of tough ones in this game either. A head shot by Ofa Tu’ungafasi went unpunished, and Etzebeth nutting off came after he was provoked.

But the Blues had a key playmaker knocked out by a swinging arm that made direct contact with the head, with force, which, unless the guidelines were changed last week, is a red card, a yellow at the very least. The Stormers were awarded two tries that should not have been allowed, and of the four or five big calls that cost the Blues, only the first Matt Duffie yellow was justified.

No doubt there will be those who consider this as New Zealand getting some of their own back, some form of justice for all of those times New Zealand has cheated to win, or refs have cheated to help them win.

Fill your boots with that if you like, but is that really what we want in the game?

In the end what’s happened here is that a Stormers win, and a notable result, gets clouded, and I’m not sure they deserve that.

Unfortunately a lack of depth prevents a return to “neutral” refs, and frankly that’s not the perfect cure-all either. I’d trust Angus Gardiner, for example, over most for any game in Australia.

It could help if they initiated some sort of exchange with the northern hemisphere. For starters it would help get rid of the perennial issue of differing interpretations between north and south that blights the game, and it might take the edge out of some of these important “international’ match ups, be they in NZ, South Africa, Australia, Japan or Argentina.

There’s always going to be a problem of perception. A New Zealand ref for a game in New Zealand, an Aussie in Oz and so on, will have some people looking under every rock for bias….like they do with commentators!

That’s just part of the deal, but what we have to be guarded against are performances that threaten the credibility of a result, and the competition.

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