SA’s big three primed for play-offs

JON CARDINELLI writes the Stormers are favourites to win the South African conference but there is a strong chance the Bulls and Sharks will also qualify for the knockout rounds.

At present, the Bulls and Stormers are the only SA teams in the top six. That could change in the next three weeks, as the Sharks should use the four points received for a bye as well as home advantage to push for play-off inclusion.

It is likely that South Africa will have not two, but three franchises in the Super Rugby play-offs.

The Stormers are on course to retain their conference title. They have suffered a slew of injuries, and their loose-forward situation is not likely to improve before the play-offs. But given what that depleted side accomplished four weeks ago at Loftus Versfeld, you’d have to believe they are favourites to win their remaining matches against comparatively weak opposition.

They play the embattled Lions at Newlands this week, who are dealing with injury problems of their own. A potentially tricky trip to Bloemfontein will follow, although the Cheetahs are less competitive at the end of a season as injuries inevitably expose the franchise’s lack of depth. The Stormers will finish the league with a game against the Rebels, and even if they don’t bank a four-try bonus point, a win should be enough to book a place in the semi-finals.

The Bulls will play two of their three league games at home, and you’d expect them to collect five log points on each of those occasions. They’re well equipped to physically dominate the Cheetahs and Lions, and when they lay that sort of platform, they are capable of destroying defences and racking up big scores.

It will be vitally important that they collect the bonus points for four tries or more. Winning big against the Cheetahs and Lions, and possibly earning a losing bonus point against the Sharks, should be sufficient to ensure play-off qualification. But losing to the Sharks and failing to accumulate the necessary extras against the Cheetahs and Lions could lead to an early exit.

Like the Bulls, the Sharks were disappointing in their game before the break. However, they are still in a position to qualify for the next round, and their ability to do so will hinge on the result of that clash against the Bulls at Kings Park.

They will receive four points for a bye this week, and should be favourites to bury the Cheetahs in the final league game. But failure to beat the Bulls will deny them a play-off spot.

With Willem Alberts due back for that clash and a host of other Boks at their disposal, they have to be favourites to win at home. They will of course be hoping that a few overseas results go their way, as will the other South African play-off contenders.

There are nine teams vying for six play-off places, and looking at the match-ups and likely results over the next three weeks, it could be the Reds, Hurricanes and Highlanders that don’t make the cut.

The Chiefs should be good enough to top the league and win the New Zealand conference, even though they could come unstuck against the Crusaders. The Cantabrians are famous for their late-season surges, and wins against the Hurricanes, Chiefs and Force should earn them home advantage in a qualifying play-off.

The Chiefs will do the Sharks a favour in the coming weeks when they dispose of the Hurricanes and Highlanders, and the resurgent Reds should also be too strong for Jamie Joseph’s side.

The Reds will be hoping that the Sharks stumble in their remaining two matches, although three wins for the Queenslanders may also not be enough to qualify. They need to record bonus-point wins to give themselves the best chance of advancing.

If all pans out as expected, the Chiefs and Stormers will secure home field advantage for the semi-finals, and also earn a week’s break at the end of the league. The Brumbies, thanks to the absurd conference system, will finish in third place and host the Sharks in the first qualifying play-off, while the Crusaders will host the Bulls in the second.

It’s crazy to think that the Bulls may finish higher on the log than the Sharks but will still need to face a superior opponent in the first knockout match. It is likely that their play-off will take place in Christchurch against the seven-time champions rather than in Canberra against a well-drilled but inexperienced Brumbies team.

But that aside, it would mark a special feat if three South African teams qualified for the play-offs.

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