It is scarcely believable that Super Rugby enters its final round this weekend some five months after it kicked off in February.
For heaven’s sake, players have aged in that time, coaches have gained significantly more grey hairs, but the upshot of almost half a year of rugby is that only two teams are assured of play-off rugby, and that is what makes this southern hemisphere competition so great.
The northern hemisphere can keep their half-baked competitions – Super Rugby is where the men are separated from the boys.
John Plumtree, the Sharks coach, would agree – although he would say more of his hairline has receded than turned grey this year as his team has mastered the art of being spectacularly inconsistent.
And the beads of sweat on his forehead would have been mounting from early this morning as he watches the matches that can influence his team ahead of Saturday’s curtain call against the Cheetahs.
If the Hurricanes, just behind the Sharks, win, they turn the heat up on the Sharks and tomorrow morning, if the Reds beat the Waratahs, the Sharks will be similarly under pressure to beat the Cheetahs.
But not by too much…
The Sharks want to finish the weekend in sixth place and hopefully find the Brumbies still in third place, and thus play them in Canberra, and leave the Bulls to travel to Christchurch on a suicide mission to play the Crusaders. Rather them than us, the Sharks will be saying privately.
In the meantime they will have to beat the Cheetahs, unless of course the Hurricanes and Reds both lose their games, in which case the Sharks could field a team made up of the Kings Park cleaners and gardeners and be rest assured they will finish sixth.
But while they still have to beat the Cheetahs, as it stands now, they have been boosted by the return of a number of injured players.
Patrick Lambie, who injured his ankle in the second Test against England, is back at fullback and Willem Alberts, who injured his knee in the same Springbok game, will play a power role off the bench.
The only two teams that have qualified are the Stormers and the Chiefs, and another six teams are battling for the four remaining spots.
The Stormers and Chiefs have already won the SA and New Zealand conferences and, depending on this weekend’s results, will contest the first two positions on the log.
The Stormers (62) have a chance to top the log after the Chiefs went down to Hurricanes on Friday morning.
One point will also ensure the Brumbies (58) win the Australian conference and secure a spot in the play-offs. However, if they get a full house against the Blues and the Stormers fail to get a single point against the Rebels, the team from Canberra can still slip into the top three.
If the Brumbies lose and get zero points on Saturday morning and the Reds get five against the Waratahs in Brisbane, the defending champions can still win the Aussie conference.
The Crusaders (56) can’t finish higher than fourth and need at least three points against the Force in Christchurch to secure their spot in the play-offs.
If both the Bulls and the Sharks manage five log points from their final league fixture, the team with the best points difference will finish higher on the log.
The two teams currently outside the top six that can still sneak in are the Reds and the Hurricanes (both on 53).
The Reds need to win and if they catch the Bulls or the Sharks on the log, the Queenslanders will advance as they have won more games. But they will remain in seventh position on the log if both these SA teams win with bonus points. – The Mercury