JON CARDINELLI says the Stormers remain on course for a home semi-final, a fact that makes them the best-placed South African franchise.
As I wrote two weeks ago, three South African franchises should qualify for the 2012 play-offs. The Stormers have already booked their place in the next phase by securing the SA conference title, while the Bulls and Sharks should advance on the back of big home victories in the final round of the league.
I expect the Bulls to collect five log points from their coming fixture against the Lions, but even that may not be enough to secure home advantage in the qualifying play-off. They missed an opportunity in Durban last week in that another four points would have furthered their cause for a top-four finish. As it stands, they’re unlikely to surpass the Crusaders, and so a journey to Christchurch is now looking highly likely.
The Crusaders will host the Western Force in their final league match, and based on current form the Cantabrians must be favourites to win comfortably. Even if they accumulate four log points instead of five and the Bulls bank a full house at Loftus, the Crusaders will still finish ahead of Bulls on the log. The Bulls will be hoping the Force can do them a favour and score an upset like the Rebels did earlier in the season, but aberrations like that are surely a once in a season occurence.
Like the Stormers and Sharks, the Bulls will know what they need to do to advance before they even take the field on Saturday. The matches involving the three South African contenders are the final three of the league. No doubt the coaches of these teams will be watching the overseas fixtures on Friday and Saturday morning with keen interest.
The Stormers will be supporting the Hurricanes when they host the Chiefs. A win for the Hurricanes will mean that the Stormers merely need to beat the Rebels to secure top spot on the log. The upshot of this outcome is that the Stormers will host a semi-final and a possible final.
If the Hurricanes can’t win that match, the Stormers will at least hope that their defence limits the Chiefs to three tries or less. A Chiefs win without the bonus point will mean that the Stormers still have a chance of finishing top of the log, providing of course they score four or more tries in a win against the Rebels at Newlands.
The Bulls and Sharks, however, will be hoping that the Chiefs beat the Hurricanes and end the latter team’s play-off ambitions. They will also hope that the Waratahs beat the Reds or at least stop Ewen McKenzie’s men from claiming five log points from that encounter.
There is a chance that the Hurricanes and Reds will score bonus-point victories in their respective matches, and that would take both teams up to 58 log points. However if that were to happen, the Bulls and Sharks would still be in a good position, given that they both boast superior points differentials to that of the Hurricanes and Reds. They would, of course, still need to win their matches against the Lions and Cheetahs respectively.
It seems more likely that the Chiefs will win in Wellington, although it could be closer than most expect. What this result could do is give the Stormers a chance of claiming top spot. It is something they need to shoot for, and there isn’t a tremendous amount of risk involved.
The Brumbies are likely to beat the Blues in Canberra, and five log points would see them moving one point ahead of the Stormers. That result would see the Stormers needing at least one log point from the Rebels fixture to finish second, as they have won more matches than the Brumbies.
If the Brumbies don’t get the bonus point, then the Stormers will be free to pursue a five-point haul knowing there will be no consequences should they lose. There will however, be everything to gain in the shape of a potential home final.