As the newly-named Guinness PRO12 announced its fixture list for the upcoming season, down in the Southern Hemisphere, their regular season is reaching its climax ahead of the eagerly anticipated Finals of Super Rugby. With one round left in the regular season there is still much to play for as finals spots and positions are still up for grabs.
Owing to the conference system, the NSW Waratahs, the Sharks and the Crusaders have all secured finals spots, with the Tahs also securing home advantage throughout. The Sharks and the Crusaders still have much to play for with 2nd place, and avoiding a wildcard match, still on the line.
The biggest game of the weekend is undoubtedly between in the ACT Brumbies and Western Force in Canberra, which is a win or go home scenario for both teams. The Force have been rejuvenated this year, led by the inspirational Matt Hodgson and Ben McCalman up front, with Alby Mathewson pulling the strings at half-back and Nick Cummins providing flair and grabbing meat whenever he can.
Cummins will move to Japan after the domestic season finishes, thus providing the Force with more impetus to win. They will find themselves up against a strong outfit in the Brumbies, who’ve only lost once at home this season. Their skipper, Ben Mowen, is leaving to join Montpellier and their motivation will be unquestioned. Nic White and Matt Tooma at 9 and 10 will look to provide direction for a potentially potent backline including Jesse Mogg and Christain Leali’ifano. However, the Brumbies must hope that a field-goal percentage of less than 65% improves as they approach the business end of the season. Overall, they should be too strong for the Force on this occasion.
Across in New Zealand the reigning champions, the Chiefs square off against the Blues. It’s simple for the Chiefs – win and they go through to the Finals. For the Blues, it is not quite as simple as they must win by thirty-eight points, with at least four tires and also deny the Chiefs any points of their own. The Chiefs big-game mentality and with the ever impressive Aaron Cruden pulling the strings at 10, they should have enough in the tank to give themselves a shot at defending their title over the coming weeks.
Another New Zealand derby of huge significance is the match up between the Crusaders and the Highlanders. The Crusaders are omnipresent in the latter stages of Super Rugby and this year has been no exception. With Dan Carter and, more importantly, Kieran Read back in the fold – they will be confident of securing a home semi-final and at the same time avoiding a potentially tricky wildcard match next weekend. The Highlanders will probably know if they have qualified before this match kicks off – owing to staggered TV times. They have improved hugely this year, and a place in the Finals is the least that they deserve after an excellent season.
The Sharks are going to be the only South African team to get into the Playoffs, and they are still in with a shout of nabbing a home semi-final, if they better the Crusaders result this weekend. Should both the Crusaders and the Sharks finish level on points, their respective points difference will determine who gets a free weekend and home advantage in the semi-finals. The Crusaders hold a slight advantage in this respect, with a points difference of +97 compared to the Sharks at +89. With the Crusaders at home and the Sharks away to the Stormers, the Crusaders will be favorites to claim a home semi-final.
Overall, this Super Rugby campaign has seen New Zealand sides generally flourish, with the Blues finding themselves as the worst New Zealand conference side but are still ranked 9th in the overall standings ahead of four South African franchises.
The Force have provided the surprise package and still have a chance of making the Finals. The real story though, are the Waratahs, who are playing some truly stunning rugby led by Michael Hooper up front. Kurtley Beale has been revitalised playing outside the unselfish Bernard Foley, who is the glue that holds this team together.
Their match-winner however, is the incomparable Israel Folau who has been the best player on the planet this year, bar none. With home advantage for the duration of the Finals, it will take a very special team to knock off the Waratahs. My money is on them to win it all, but don’t overlook the possibility of an upset from those teams that have been there and done it before – namely the Chiefs and the Crusaders.
Matthew Morrow, Pundit Arena.