Super Rugby playoff race heats up after June tests
WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) — The race for playoffs places in Super Rugby enters the final stretch on Friday with success likely to go to teams that recover from the June test-series layoff.
Three rounds remain in the regular season, beginning with this weekend’s round for Australian and New Zealand teams only, and 10 teams are in contention for six playoffs spots, although the claims of the lowest-placed teams are now tenuous.
South Africa’s Sharks lead the tournament with 45 points from the New South Wales Waratahs with 43 and the Christchurch-based Crusaders with 41, but the Durban-based Sharks have two matches left while the Waratahs and Crusaders have three.
The ACT Brumbies, Dunedin-based Highlanders and Wellington-based Hurricanes hold the next three spots, under pressure from the Western Force, Chiefs, Bulls and Blues.
The success of each team’s playoff bid may now defend on the speed with which they re-start their campaigns after the month-long break for June tests between Australia and France, New Zealand and England and South Africa and Wales.
Many teams face the prospect of having to nurse back to health leading players who were seriously injured or merely bruised and wearied by their involvement in those test matches.
The Crusaders — who head a New Zealand conference in which all five teams are still in the playoffs race — have lost All Blacks captain Richie McCaw for the remainder of the regular season with a broken rib. Their own captain, All Blacks backrower Kieran Read, still has to be managed carefully and will likely start Saturday’s match against the Hurricanes on the bench.
The Sharks, who have clinched first place in the South African conference and are assured of a playoffs place, have matches remaining against compatriots the Cheetahs and Stormers, and can achieve a maximum of 55 points as they try to tie up first or second place and a home semifinal.
Coach Jake White said the Sharks had used the June break to refresh players not involved in the Springboks’ matches.
“It’s been a good refresher for us and although we’re not in an ideal position with our Boks away, at least it gives us time now to start getitng our game plans and game strategies right for the next couple of weeks,” he said.
The Waratahs will play the Brumbies, Highlanders and Queensland Reds over the next three weeks and can reach 58 points while the Crusaders, with games left against the Hurricanes, Blues and Highlanders, can reach 56. Both could therefore leapfrog the Sharks into first and second places, although their schedules make that unlikely.
The third-placed Crusaders will face the Hurricanes without winger Nemani Nadolo, who will play for Fiji against the Cook Islands in a World Cup qualifying match on Saturday, and may lose All Blacks fullback Israel Dagg to a knee injury.
The fourth-placed Brumbies have only two matches left, against the Waratahs and Western Force and can reach 50 points while the sixth-placed Hurricanes, who have a final round bye after matches against the Crusaders and Chiefs can reach 47.
The Highlanders, who haven’t reached the playoffs in 12 years, have still to play the Chiefs, Waratahs and Crusaders and could reach 53 points with bonuses from each of those games.
The Force are in seventh place and only a point out of the top six, still in contention to reach the playoffs for the first time in their nine-year history. At the same time, the Hamilton-based Chiefs, in eighth, are in danger of missing the playoffs and conceding the Super Rugby title they have won in each of the last two years.
A loss to the Highlanders on Friday could end their championship reign.