And then there were nine
July 7, 2014
Andy Withers and Brett McKay discuss the Super Rugby finals permutations and wonder who can beat the Waratahs
And then there were nine. The penultimate round of Super Rugby has thinned out the field of finals contenders, even if only by one team. But that one - the Bulls - and a series of other results has at last made the qualifying equations a lot clearer and simpler than it was. All teams in contention now at least have their destiny in their own hands, and the requirement will be simple in the final round: win.
Here are the weekend's Super Rugby talking points, and don't forget to have your say via the comments below, or jump onto Twitter and tell the world using the #Scrum5 hashtag.
Unheralded Chiefs star in outstanding defensive effort
In the 13th minute of the Chiefs' win over the Hurricanes in Hamilton, the 'Canes won a scrum from their put-in on the Chiefs 5m line. From the scrum, they compiled ten further phases and didn't make a single metre. And then conceded a penalty for not releasing the ball.
Chiefs 24-15 Hurricanes (video available in Australia only)%]
That passage, like so many other passages in their impressive win, completely epitomised the brilliance of the Chiefs' defensive effort. And it was the largely unheralded players that led the way.
As good as the Crudens, and the Messams, and the Retallicks were - and Brodie Retallick played his best game for the Chiefs in as long as I can remember - it was the guys like Liam Squire, and Jamie Mackintosh, and Michael Fitzgerald who really lifted their games to match their All Blacks-capped teammates.
And that's an important distinction to make. You expect your big name players to deliver in the big games. More often than not, they do just that. But when those lesser players (for the definite want of a much better descriptor) lift their game to match their star colleagues, that's when you get the major impact.
No.8 Squire was excellent on Friday night, and it's easy to forget he's in his debut Super Rugby season. Our stats had him making a game-high 14 runs for 54 metres, making seven tackles and missing none, effecting a turnover, and for good measure taking a lineout off his own team's and the opposition's throw. Don't just take my word for it though; Jeff Wilson described him on SKY Sport in New Zealand as "one of the finds of the season".
Unheralded no longer...
Jekyll and Hyde Crusaders get the job done
Crusaders 21-13 Blues (video available in Australia only)%]
Call it the classic curse of the pundit/commentator: 24 minutes into the Crusaders-Blues game in Christchurch, even though there was still only one point in it courtesy of Frank Halai's 100-metre intercept try, the feeling was that the Crusaders were about to break the game open.
And then they took the masks off, and revealed the ordinary looking, scratchy, barely-making-four-phases Crusaders for the next half an hour or more, just to punish me.
Yet somehow, they got the job done. Dan Carter showed in the last 15 minutes that he should resume the goal-kicking next week for the conference deciding clash with their South Island rivals, the Highlanders, and there's even an argument that he should probably resume the play-making duties at first-five.
Though, given Colin Slade suffered a second sickening head knock in a week, in trying to tackle Ma'a Nonu front-on, the decision to move Carter into 10 might be the right thing to do on health grounds anyway.
They may yet finish as the top NZ qualifier, the Crusaders, but they're not playing particularly well. And worse than that, they're not playing particularly well at home. They have much improvement to find if they're to feature in the last weekends of Super Rugby, because not even their impressive history and reputation will be enough to get them home on current form.
Force finals dream still alive after game of three halves
Western Force have already had an historic season, but now they sit on the precipice staring into the previously unimagined: finals football.
But didn't they make it harder than it should've been! They started very well against Queensland Reds in Perth on Saturday night, getting on the front foot early and jumping out to a 17-3 lead after 20 minutes. Contrast that to the week before, where the Blues had secured their fourth-try bonus point by the same mark.
Force 30-20 Reds (video available in Australia only)%]
The revelation that starting well and scoring points early can affect the way a team plays from thereon is hardly ground-breaking, but it's especially true of the Force this year. They've had a strong defence and breakdown for most of the season, but without points on the board, there's not a lot of point in just defending all game.
Strange, then, that they would come out in the second half, having conceded a converted try only minutes before the break, and attempt to hold onto the narrowing lead. The Reds were always going to do more with the ball with increased possession, and such a move to hand over possession so readily was playing with fire. Nineteen minutes after the break, the margin was back to three, and ten minutes later again, the scores were level.
It was a bit of good luck and good fortune that saw hooker Nathan Charles in open space with the ball in his hand to score what would be the match-winner, and the Force will at least be pleased with the way they finished the game. But they'll know they can't play so passively against the Brumbies on Friday night, or beyond, should they qualify for a maiden finals appearance.
Sharks loss hands pole position to the Waratahs
The Sharks' shock loss in Bloemfontein in the early hours of Sunday morning must have been music to Michael Cheika's ears as he tucked into his coco pops. Conversely, was Jake White ruing his decision to play the du Plessis brothers off the bench?
Cheetahs 27-20 Sharks (video available in Australia only)%]
Competition front-runners for much of the season, the Sharks were 7&2 before they finally left the Republic in early May, and are 3&3 since. And on their return home, they've lost their past two games either side of the break, to the Stormers and Cheetahs respectively, both in the bottom couple of teams at the time.
To say the Sharks have lost a bit of momentum is the understatement of the week, and while ever this uncertainty about their make-up continues - will Pat Lambie return this week? - It's very difficult to judge where the South African conference champs sit alongside the other finals qualifiers. Yes, they'll play a final in Durban, regardless of whether it's week one or two of the post-season, and that will certainly help their cause, but the Sharks at Kings Park doesn't hold the same fear factor now as it did in late April.
Never mind the finals though; the Sharks on current form are no certainties in Cape Town this weekend coming, either.
The Waratahs, on the other hand, have confirmed themselves as both the minor premiers and Australian conference winners, but also the dominant team in Super Rugby in this back half of the season.
Waratahs 44-16 Highlanders (video available in Australia only)%]
They completely demolished the Highlanders in the second half on Sunday afternoon, to run away with the game and add even more momentum to an already-healthy pile they've built since the resumption.
As good as the six tries were, the Waratahs will be absolutely wrapped about their second half scrummaging performance. For a good ten minutes there around the 60-minute mark, they utterly bulldozed the Highlanders' eight, winning several tight heads and penalties, and also producing the bonus point fourth try for scrum-half Nick Phipps. Tight-head prop, Paddy Ryan, much maligned during the June Internationals, came on in that time and proved the literal immovable object as Sekope Kepu's switch to loose-head allowed the Tahs pack to attack.
The scrum has been one of the very few issues in the Waratahs' game this year, and such a dominant performance could not be timed much better.
Not to count unhatched chickens, but it already seems like they will take a lot of beating in the finals Series.
So then, the Round 19 equations
If there's one thing the conference format had brought to Super Rugby, it's been dramatic finishes to the regular season. 2014 will be no different, with three confirmed or hopeful finals participants facing off in matches that will have a major bearing on the final make up of the top six.
Two of the three conference leaders are set, and the Waratahs are secure in first place overall. The Sharks will finish second or third, depending on the Crusaders-Highlanders game, which will decide the New Zealand conference. So with the Tahs and Sharks confirmed in the top three, this is what is required of the remaining sides in the race home.
Crusaders (2nd currently): Beat the Highlanders, and they top the NZ conference. Lose and not concede a four-try bonus point, and they'll also finish first over the ditch.
Highlanders (4th): Almost safe. Only two teams (the Brumbies/Force winner and the Chiefs), can overtake them if they win and the Highlanders lose in Christchurch, meaning they couldn't finish lower than 6th. However, should the Brumbies and Force draw in Canberra - particularly if they both throw off the shackles and run in four tries each - a Chiefs win AND a Highlanders loss could see the Highlanders drop to 7th.
Hurricanes (5th): Can only sit and watch and hope, courtesy of the bye. A Chiefs win on Friday night, and a bonus point loser in Canberra will see them drop out, and could finish a low as 8th. About to become big Blues fans.
Brumbies (6th): Beat the Force, and they're in. If the Chiefs lose in Auckland beforehand, the Brumbies could still qualify with a losing bonus point, or a draw against the Force.
Force (7th): Same equation as the Brumbies, win and they're in. A Chiefs loss AND a bonus point loss or draw in Canberra could see both Australian teams qualify, though. And in fact, they could even finish 4th and 5th, meaning that they would meet again in the first week of the finals. And in Canberra, again.
Chiefs (8th): Simply must beat the Blues in Auckland. Could finish as high as 4th.
Blues (9th): Not quite as simple as the Chiefs' task; must beat the Chiefs with a bonus point AND by more than 38 points to overtake the Hurricanes' currently superior points differential.
Bulls (10th): Officially out of the race. Needed to beat the Stormers in Round 18.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd
On Saturday, New Zealand face the USA in a match that has been 40 years in the making. Tom Hamilton finds the atmosphere building in Chicago
Most modern rugby players will not know the name Ray Williams but they should be eternally grateful to him, writes John Taylor
With the All Blacks playing the USA Eagles this weekend, Craig Dowd says rugby is ready to make a professional breakthrough Stateside
"He had a death stare so you'd know when you were wrong." George Kruis talks about his mentor Borthwick, fly-fishing and his England aspirations