Super rugby teams face knockout games
WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) — The Chiefs’ two-year reign as Super Rugby champions could end on Friday as the penultimate regular-season round takes on the sudden-death immediacy of the postseason playoffs.
Anything less than a win over the Hurricanes in Hamilton in the opening match of the 18th round will see the end of the Chiefs’ bid for their third straight title, and will ensure a new champion is crowned in the final on Aug. 2.
The match is no less urgent for the Hurricanes, who have only one match left in the season because of a last-round bye, and need as many championship points as possible to avoid being elbowed out of the top-six playoffs.
Defeat could derail the campaigns of even the best-placed teams, reshuffling the 10 teams still in playoffs contention.
As the round begins, the New South Wales Waratahs are atop the table, three points ahead of South Africa’s Sharks, who are also three points ahead of the Christchurch-based Crusaders — the teams leading their regional conferences.
The Waratahs, with matches remaining against the Highlanders and Queensland Reds, can reach a maximum of 12 wins and 58 points — a contrast to last season when the Chiefs topped the table with 12 wins and 66 points. The disparity indicates the closeness of this season’s competition: 58 points was only good enough last season for fifth place, and the last qualifier, the Cheetahs, had 54 in sixth.
The Pretoria-based Bulls, in 10th place, have the last and leanest chance of making the playoffs. With bonus-point wins in their remaining matches against the Stormers and Melbourne Rebels, the Bulls could reach 43 points — good enough for fourth on the current table — but it is unlikely movement among the leading sides will allow the three-time champions to finish inside the top six.
The seventh-place Western Force, the eighth-place Blues and the Chiefs all have 36 points and must win their remaining games while depending on the results of other matches to have any chance of advancing.
The Chiefs have responded to their desperate position by making seven changes for Friday’s clash with the Hurricanes, dumping five of the backs who started in last weekend’s 29-25 loss to the Highlanders at Dunedin.
“A lot of effort went in to winning two championships and I’m not so sure that conscious desire to win three has been as evident,” assistant coach Tom Coventry said. “I still think it lies latent in us. I see it in us when we train and I’ve seen it in glimpses this year but not consistently.”
The Hurricanes are no less desperate. In fifth place, they know the best they can do is to reach 46 points, then let the chips fall where they may in the last round.
Flyhalf Beauden Barrett, who has led the Hurricanes’ attacking revival since they started the season with three straight losses, says they are mentally prepared for Friday’s showdown.
“After three losses right at the start, we were really under the pump,” he said. “To be in this situation now, we’ve got a great opportunity. Emotionally, we’re going to be up for it. It’s just about doing the basics well and the intensity will be there.”
The Waratahs and Sharks still have much to play for. While each has already won its regional conference, neither is yet assured of the first- or second-place finish which will award them a home semifinal.
The Durban-based Sharks have a much better chance of attaining that reward with matches remaining against the last-place Cheetahs and 11th-place Stormers. The Waratahs clash on Sunday with the fourth-place Highlanders, who remain major players in the playoffs race.
“On Sunday, it’s probably the game I’m going to ask the team to make the biggest sacrifices of the season so far,” Waratahs coach Michael Cheika said.
The seven-time champion Crusaders lead the New Zealand conference but are level on points, with one more win than the Highlanders. If they beat the Auckland-based Blues on Saturday, they will snuff out the Blues’ playoff hopes and significantly advance their own ahead of their final-round clash with the Highlanders.