After almost 10,000 hours of rugby, the final six remain standing. In the later stages of the regular season, it wasn’t a surprise that the Waratahs pulled out in front and topped the table by seven points from a determined and gritty Crusaders outfit. The leaders for most of the season fell from their perch during a late season slump and sit one point from the Crusaders.
The second set of three: Brumbies, Chiefs and Highlanders all played the last group of matches as if their lives depended on it with three points separating them. The Hurricanes and Force missed their chances and fell out of finals contention at the last hurdle. The rest of the teams made up the numbers with some memorable performances, but too little too late.
The Rebels were the unfortunate team to collect the wooden spoon and now need to reflect on another season that shone at the beginning but quickly deteriorated as it went on. Twelve loses is a serious number and needs to be addressed if the franchise is to grow in the Victorian market dominated by AFL and NRL.
With two-thirds of the teams packing up their sheds and taking down the corner flags, there are still three more do-or-die games for the Waratahs, Crusaders, Sharks, Brumbies, Chiefs and Highlanders. The Waratahs and Crusaders have played themselves into a position to be granted a week off while the next four play the quarter-finals/qualifiers to determine who will meet the leaders at a home semi-final.
The Sharks host the Highlanders at Growthpoint Kings Park which is set to be a grudge match. After the last time the Highlanders toured the Durban facility, they put four tries past the men in black and embarrassed them at home with a score of 18-34. If the Sharks lose this game, South Africa no longer have a presence in the finals, which would be indicative of the overall performances from the Republic. With the Sharks as the only South African team in the playoff rounds, there is the added pressure to perform and for Jake White’s men to play better than they have ever played before.
The Sharks have not set the scene alight with their style of rugby, which has a lot of parallels to the Springboks of 2007. There is plenty of kicking and the reliance on Frans Steyn has been disproportionate to what he is capable of. The Sharks have scored 29 tries, second from the bottom, but have still manged to be in the top three throughout the season. This can be attributed to defensive patterns, which have since been circumvented in the past few rounds. They have let through an average of 18 points per game but only scored 25, which allows the losing team to gain a losing bonus point for the loss. Their games, on average, have only been won by a converted try. Compare that to the minnow champions with a scoring average of 30 against 17. The Waratahs have shut out games while scoring tries amounting to 55 over the season.
The Sharks need to change their tactics to win the championship but it is too late in the season to do so as they play an archaic game plan with little room for imagination and a plan that is easily predictable. They have been lucky to be in the top three but their time is up. Even if they manage to beat the Highlanders, they have to travel to Christchurch to face a resurgent Crusaders. The last match was an epic clash with a 14-man Sharks team playing over an hour against the Saders to win it by 5. I doubt that the seven-time champions will let that happen again. The Sharks have little to no hope of winning the championships, especially with their style of rugby. Their stats may contradict my opinion but their recent form slump raises red flags and overshadows their season’s stellar efforts – this coming from a Sharks fan, but the reality is that South Africa as a whole underperformed and don’t deserve to be at the summit of the best competition in the world.
The Highlanders have been hot and cold this season but managed to squeeze into the playoff rounds by beating the Chiefs but slumped against the Waratahs and Crusaders. They too are on a downward spiral but have the psychological edge over the Sharks with the powerful win in round 11. They are the third best team in New Zealand which proves that the New Zealand teams pushed each other during the derbies and now there are three teams from the country in contention. The Highlanders have had the surprise performances of the year as well as some players who have proven themselves. Their back line is made up of some of the best All Blacks and can break the line with efficiency which can put them into contention, but their recent loses may play on their minds and the fact that they don’t travel all that well. They lost by large margins in NSW and Canterbury and now have to face a tough Sharks team in Kwa-Zulu Natal. They don’t have much hope to beat the Sharks but they could repeat their round 11 performance and surprise everyone with a win.
The defending champions have a chance of making a hat-trick of ultimate wins but they have a difficult path to overcome. They play the Brumbies in the ACT and face a tough task of beating a gritty and hard nosed team at home. The Chiefs haven’t had much luck against the Brumbies with the 20 games played between the two, the Brumbies win record is 12 versus the Chiefs’ 7 and a single draw in the mix. The last time that the two met was in Canberra with the Brumbies getting the better of the Chiefs with a 41-23 win. The Chiefs have shown a resurgence in their game with wins over the Hurricanes and Blues but it may not be enough to topple the Brumbies in Canberra. They will have to rely on a lot of experience and a little bit of luck to get to the semi-finals to then play at the Allianz Fortress that is dominated by the Waratahs.
The Brumbies have the edge over the Chiefs with a recent dominating win over the Waikato men early in the season and a better winning percentage over the past seasons. The Brumbies may have lost Jake White as their coach before the 2014 season and their stalwart, Fisher, is off to European pastures, but they have played well this season with a well balanced game. They have scored an average of 26 points with 24 scored against them. Their games have been tight but they have managed to win the tight ones by looking at the numbers. The problem that the Brumbies face is now to back up successful wins with another. Since round 6 they haven’t had a winning streak longer than two wins. They have an on and off performance which could play against them and they have a tough one against the Chiefs. This match is too difficult to call at the moment and I think that a brave bookie may put their bets on the Brumbies to win, but not by much. This is just going on past numbers and averages but the Chiefs have played against the odds this season and have managed to win, so who truly knows.
After this round of qualifiers, the picture will be clearer but no matter who wins they face two epic opponents in the form of the Crusaders and Waratahs which are difficult teams to beat at home, especially after travelling for some teams. Even at this stage, I would call a Waratahs versus Crusaders final. These qualifying teams will put up a fight but the top two teams are there for a reason and I don’t think that the others can topple them.
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