After the penultimate round of the Super 18, a clearer picture of the play-off contenders has emerged but there are still battles to be fought over the prized home berths.
As we look forward to some lick-your-lips match-ups in next week’s final round, we power rank the teams still in play-off contention after their round 16 games.
1. The Crusaders (Round 16 – 85-26 vs The Rebels)
The Crusaders demolished the Rebels in Christchurch, bullying the Melburnians at the breakdown and showing off their incredibly accurate link play to run in 13 tries, and were even able to give their most influential player, Kieran Read, the night off.
They sneak in ahead of the Chiefs, as in the final round they play the Hurricanes but do so at their Canterbury fortress.
2.The Chiefs (Round 16 – 50-5 vs The Reds)
The Chiefs ran the Reds ragged, with their exceptional passing skills and lightning ability to turn defence into attack. Winning by that margin away from Moolooland bodes well going forward as they will meet their match in playing style and skills this week playing Ben Smith’s Highlanders in the deep South.
They need to win (ideally with a bonus point) to completely secure the prized home play-off spot.
3. The Lions (Round 16 – 57-21 vs The Kings)
The Lions predictably ran over and round the struggling Kings and their loose forward trio, led by Jaco Kriel. They will be a daunting proposition for any team.
As of round 16, they have the best points differential out of all Super 18 sides. We expect them to pile more hurt on the Jaguares away, in a warm-up for their home ground advantage for the play-offs.
4. The Hurricanes (Round 16 – 28-17 vs The Warratahs)
The Hurricanes survived the toughest round 16 match-up, winning a bruising, error-ridden encounter away over the disjointed Warratahs.
How much that performance has reduced energy stocks will be the question as they face the supremely fit and red hot Crusaders away. But with Beauden Barrett in the form of his life and definite signs the Bus (Julian Savea) is back don’t count them out.
5. The Stormers (Round 16 – 22-3 vs The Force)
The Stormers ground out an uninspiring win against cellar dwellers Force. However, given that their final game is against the lowly Kings, Schalk Burger and his troops should be able to keep their powder dry for their home play-off while the New Zealand teams bash each other in the local derbies.
6. The Highlanders (Round 16 – 34-8 vs The Jaguares)
The Highlanders won a fiery and frustrating encounter in Argentina. They will need to recover from playing in two continents in two weeks and be able to sharpen their skills enough to deal with the quicksilver Chiefs.
Being at home will obviously help, but the fast track at the indoor Forsyth Barr Stadium will suit the Chiefs’ running game. Maybe a night to open the roof?
7. The Sharks (Round 16 – 26-10 vs The Cheetahs)
The Sharks won reasonably convincingly with their no-nonsense efficiency against the Cheetahs and, for a traditionally consistent team, have an unpredictable quality this year as they have been dominated by the Lions but troubled some of the New Zealand sides.
They should have a digestible entrée of Japanese Sunwolf before an away play-off.
8. The Brumbies (Round 16 – 15-40 vs The Blues)
A real disappointment this year after such a bright start when they thrashed the Hurricanes. A big loss when they were outmuscled and outpaced against the Blues, but should bounce back at home to beat the Force and secure a play-off spot.
Beyond that, without David Pocock, ski holidays could be early this year.
9. The Warratahs (Round 16 – 17-28 vs The Hurricanes)
A frustrating season where the obvious talent in their ranks has failed to come together as a team. Missing Kurtley Beale’s playmaking spark, they will face the increasingly impressive and cohesive Blues in the final round away.
They need a big bonus point win, which looks unlikely given the two teams’ form trends in recent rounds.
Kaal Kaczmarek, Pundit Arena
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