What began way back in 1993 as the “Super 10” has now evolved into a senior non-Test rugby tournament only the Heineken Cup can come close to matching in stature.
And this season sees the addition of a brand new franchise, the Melbourne Rebels, plus the introduction of a complex yet still exciting new “conference” format which is now just two weeks away from its conclusion as the fifteen teams prepare to be whittled down to just six in the playoffs.
I won’t go into the full details of how the format works, but it’s enough to say that with separate Australian, New Zealand and South African conferences, teams play more games against rivals from their own countries and thus there is a greater amount of “derby” matches which if anything makes the competition even more “super” than it already was!
So, going into week 17 of the 18-week regular season, let’s see how the three tables are shaping up…
The Australian Conference has so far been all about the Queensland Reds who have already secured first place, and what a boost that has been for the region considering the devastating floods they have suffered in recent times. Ewan McKenzie’s side have marched to an impressive 11 wins out of 14 on the back of thrilling displays by the likes of outhalf Quade Cooper and Digby Ioane.
But although the Brisbane-based outfit lead the overall standings as well as their home one, they were given a stern warning against complacency last weekend as they fell at home to the Brumbies. Their rivals from Canberra have had a shocking season by their own standards, due in part to injuries to key players like national skipper Rocky Elsom, so incoming World Cup winning coach Jake White will be happy to see he’s got something to work with.
The New Zealand conference is currently led by the Auckland Blues, but they have had their own troubles of late and also fell at home last weekend to the struggling Chiefs. But while the Reds have secured top spot in their league, the Blues have the 7-time champion Crusaders, with their superstar lineup including Dan Carter and Richie McCaw, hot on their heels and the two meet each other this weekend in what should be a decisive battle.
It’s the Stormers from Cape Town leading the way in the South African Conference and they if they can secure a home win against the reigning champion Bulls this weekend, they should clinch first place. If not then Victor Matfield’s Bulls themselves come back into contention but there is also the Sharks from Natal ahead of them in a tight race.
But it’s not just the conference winners who make the playoffs – they are joined by the three teams with the best records from across the league as a whole and there a few teams still fighting for these spots. A key matchup this weekend in that race will be the New South Wales Waratahs against the Highlanders from Otago, NZ – whoever loses this one can consider their season over for sure.
So there’s a lot to play for this weekend, and I suppose it’s about time I put my neck on the line and try to predict who will come out on top!
Friday’s two matches are the only ones who have no bearing on the final standings, but they’ll all still be keen on ending the season on a high and I fancy two home wins with the Chiefs and Brumbies overcoming the Hurricanes and Rebels respectively.
The big day is Saturday. First up is Crusaders v Blues and despite the fact that McCaw is injured once more, I can only see a home win. Then comes that “wild-card” battle between the Waratahs and the Highlanders…this should be tight but again I reckon home advantage should reign supreme.
The Reds have a tricky trip across the country to Perth to face the Western Force but having learned from their upset last week I tip Quade Cooper & co to come back home with the spoils and put themselves in pole position for a key 1st-placed playoff seeding that secures home advantage for the rest of the season.
That leaves the two key South African battles Saturday afternoon Irish time, and while the Sharks should overcome the lowly Lions over 80 minutes, the Stormers/Bulls matchup that completes Round 17 has to be the toughest one of the lot to predict. I’ll reluctantly call it for the home side on form but when Morné Steyn’s boot is in the equation you can never discount the men from Pretoria.
I hope you’ll get the chance to take in at least one of these encounters over the weekend as they rarely disappoint. I’ll be back here next week to preview the final week of the regular season when the games become virtual cup-ties and the intesity increases even more.
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