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It is that time of the Super Rugby calendar when calculators are every bit as important as game plans as Super Rugby enters its final weekend of action.
Ask the Sharks and the Bulls, both of whom find themselves in the odd situation of finding a way to avoid having to play the Crusaders in Christchurch in next week’s quarter-finals.
According to the format, the two teams that finish first and second on the log go straight through to the semi-finals without having to contest a play-off, and then it is down to position three playing position six, and four playing five to determine who will meet them the following week
As it stands, with one round to go, that means the Chiefs and Stormers are through to the semi-finals, and the third-placed Brumbies will host the Sharks (sixth) in Canberra while the Bulls must travel to play the Crusaders.
The truth is that the Sharks currently have a considerably easier play-off option – earlier this season they beat the Brumbies in Canberra – while they have never won a match in Christchurch.
And the Bulls would dearly love to swop places with the Sharks given that the seven-times champions are practically unbeatable at the business end of Super Rugby, and certainly so in Christchurch.
On Saturday, the Sharks could find themselves in the strange position of not wanting to score a bonus-point try against the visiting Cheetahs so that they do not run the risk of elevating themselves above the Bulls, who play the very last game of the round robin stage when they host the Lions at Loftus in the 7pm game.
“Looking at the permutations, we will know better what we need to do when the teams in seventh and eighth, the Reds and the Hurricanes respectively, have played earlier games against the Waratahs (in Brisbane) and the Chiefs (in Wellington),” coach John Plumtree said.
“If the Chiefs win, the Canes can’t overhaul us, no matter what we do against the Cheetahs, but the Reds can if they beat the Waratahs and we lose. We would anticipate the Chiefs winning and also the Reds, which would mean we would have to beat the Cheetahs to stay ahead of the Reds, but maybe we wouldn’t need to be in a hurry to score a bonus point!” If the Reds and the Canes both lose, the Sharks could conceivably field a B team and ensure they lose to the Cheetahs and stay sixth, but pride and professionalism would never allow that scenario. But the situation does open up a can of worms. How do you play to win against the Cheetahs, but not want to score too many tries when all season you have been trying to score bonus-point wins?
“It is a nerve-racking week, so much is up in the air,” the coach admitted.
Not least of which is whether the same players who failed fitness tests last week might this week be available. Patrick Lambie, Willem Alberts, Steven Sykes and Jacques Botes remain on the injured list, with Lambie the best bet for a return from an ankle injury.
He failed a fitness test last Friday but should be much closer to selection this week.