With three teams in finals contention, South Africa dominates the Super 15 going into the final round this weekend.
Six teams will go through. South African teams hold second place, the Stormers, and fifth and six places, the Bulls and the Sharks, respectively.
New Zealand has two teams in the top six, the Chiefs (1) and the Crusaders (4); Australia one team, the Brumbies (3).
Four of these teams should win this round, securing finals places. They are:
• The Crusaders, who play the Western Force at home in Christchurch.
• The Stormers, who play the Rebels at home in Cape Town.
• The Bulls, who play the Lions at home in Pretoria.
• The Sharks, who play the Cheetahs at home in Durban.
The two remaining top six sides have difficult games. The Chiefs travel to Wellington to play the Hurricanes and the Brumbies are at home to the Blues.
The Chiefs are guaranteed a finals spot, but they have a hard match against the Hurricanes, who sit just outside the six.
The Chiefs lost to the Crusaders 21—28 in their last game, so they will be focussed. Their star centre Sonny Bill Williams has announced he is leaving to play in Japan, ahead of taking up a rugby league contract with an unnamed club in Sydney.
Hurricanes coach Mark Hammett was bitterly criticised leading into the season for axing senior players. But the young Hurricanes played well and they played the running game that Hurricanes fans are used to.
Flyhalf Beauden Barrett was used as a replacement for much of the final international between New Zealand and Ireland; on Friday he opposes the man he replaced, Chiefs flyhalf Aaron Cruden.
In Australia, the Brumbies are prospering under the coaching of South African Jake White. They play the under-performing Blues, who languish third-to-last. But the Blues are brimming with international players and inspirational skipper Kevin Mealamu returned from injury last week.
The Brumbies won a tough match 19—15 against the Waratahs leading up to the clash with the Blues. White said his inexperienced side was over-awed to be playing the illustrious, but under-performing Waratahs in Sydney.
The Brumbies last won in Sydney in 2002. The Waratahs fielded 11 international players.
On paper, the Blues also outshine the no-name Brumbies. The team is packed with All Blacks.
But White and captain Ben Mowan have shown that a good attitude is sometimes worth more than a good reputation. For example, the Brumbies are third on the table, the Blues 13th.
But players like Ma’a Nonu, Mealamu and prop Tony Woodcock are seasoned internationals. Last game the Blues beat the Force 32—9.
In South Africa the Stormers play the Rebels at home in Cape Town. The Rebels come off a loss to the bottom-placed Lions.
The Stormers narrowly beat the Cheetahs 13—6 in Bloemfontein, but pouring rain constrained play. Despite planning for a 4-try, bonus-point win, Stormers captain Jean De Villiers said: “We’re definitely happy with where we are.”
Bulls and Sharks
The Bulls and the Sharks should easily win their home games against the lowly Lions and Cheetahs, respectively.
The Sharks had to win last weekend to stay in finals contention. And they did, producing their best performance of the year to beat the Bulls 32—10.
The Queensland Reds sit just outside the top six, so they need to beat the Waratahs at home to have a chance of making the finals. After winning the Super 15 last year, the Reds know how to play pressure games, while the Waratahs are playing poorly.
After losing seven straight games, the Waratahs should be easy pickings for the Reds, who will rely on star flyhalf Quade Cooper to control the game. Cooper is beginning to find form after a long injury lay-off.
Other results will determine whether the Reds manage to slip into the 6-team, 3-week, final series.
Peter Lalanabarvi has over 30 years experience as a rugby writer.
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