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Into Super Rugby's final stretch

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Into Super Rugby's final stretch - the Contenders

With the June internationals out of the way, it’s time for the Southern Hemisphere’s premier rugby competition to resume.

Realistically, there are only nine teams vying for eight spots in the finals, which means the last three rounds of competition are all about deciding seeding for the tail end of the competition. Given that the odds have historically favoured the home teams in the Super Rugby finals, more so than in most competitions, we’re set for fireworks in the last few rounds. The teams will be counting the cost of the June internationals and scoping out who is still left standing after some injuries and suspensions to key players.

How is each team fairing with a few rounds remaining?

Crusaders
Points: 54
Ranking: 1
Games remaining: BYE, Highlanders (H), Blues (H)

Barring a huge collapse, the Crusaders have all but sewn up top spot in the competition. They’ve got one game fewer to play than most teams, including their closest rivals, the Hurricanes, but their impeccable record so far this season means it’s unlikely they’ll be usurped from the top of the competition. Of course, momentum is almost as important as home-ground advantage going into the finals, so the Crusaders will want to build on their 10-match winning streak. The Crusaders will be eagerly watching to see who their opponent will be – hoping to avoid any NZ teams in the finals.

Lions
Points: 40
Ranking: 2
Games remaining: Sharks (A), BYE, Bulls (H)

The Lions will be pushing hard to ensure that the Jaguares can’t steal their spot at the top of the South African conference. The nature of the competition means that if the Lions succumb to the Jaguares, they’ll likely drop five places and could end up travelling to Australia for the finals. With talismans Warren Whiteley and Malcolm Marx ready to return to action, it would be surprising to see them cede ground to their conference compatriots. Like the Crusaders, the Lions may well be more interested in seeing who they will be facing in the first round of the finals.

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Waratahs
Points: 35
Ranking: 3
Games remaining: Rebels (A), Sunwolves (H), Brumbies (H)

The Waratahs have the easiest run-in of the teams vying for finals places – but they’ve also been hurt by the June Internationals. Michael Hooper sustained a hamstring injury which will see him miss at least the rest of the regular season games whilst Israel Folau is waiting to see whether he will have to sit out any matches due to suspension. As with the Lions, the Waratahs could concede a number of places if they are eclipsed by the Rebels – so this weekend shapes up as a big one with a match between the two top Australian teams. With all three of their last matches being very winnable, the men from Sydney will be aiming for a second-place finish and hopefully forcing a South African team to travel to face them in the quarters.

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Hurricanes
Points: 45
Ranking: 4
Games remaining: Brumbies (A), Blues (H), Chiefs (A)

The Hurricanes are the best-placed team to steal the Crusaders’ top seeding from under their nose – but a few extra unlikely results will have to go their way. The Hurricanes will be sweating on the fitness of Beauden Barrett, who sat out the All Blacks’ most recent match due to concussion. Ardie Savea’s short-term future is much less uncertain – he will be lucky to feature again for the Hurricanes this year. With the Highlanders and the Chiefs chomping at their heels, the Hurricanes will need to win at least two of their remaining games to guarantee a home quarterfinal – they will just be miffed that securing a home semi-final is outside their control, given the queer nature of the competition.

Highlanders
Points: 40
Ranking: 5
Games remaining: Chiefs (H), Crusaders (A), Rebels (H)

The latter half of Super Rugby coincides with the onset of the southern hemisphere winter, so the Highlanders will be thankful that only one of their remaining regular-season matches will be played in the elements – in fact, Fiji is next on the agenda where they’ll take on the Chiefs. All three of the Highlanders’ opposition are jostling for position in the finals, so every game will be intense. The break probably didn’t come at the best time for the southerners. Having just given the Hurricanes a walloping in Dunedin the Highlanders would have been quite happy to keep building on that form. On the brighter side, there are a number of new All Blacks amongst the Highlanders ranks and the time spent in the international set-up will have given them plenty of motivation to lift their game even further.

Chiefs
Points: 37
Ranking: 6
Games remaining: Highlanders (A), Brumbies (H), Hurricanes (H)

The closeness of the standings at the moment means that the Chiefs could finish as high as fourth, cementing a home quarterfinal, or as low 12th, completely out of the playoff pictures. Their biggest rivals for that fourth spot are their NZ rivals the Hurricanes and the Highlanders – who the Chiefs conveniently still have to play once more. Even with a slew of wins, the Chiefs will still be relying on the Hurricanes slipping up at some point. Ironically, finishing in fifth could be the worst result as that would all but guarantee a playoff game in Wellington, which would likely be a harder challenge than facing off against the top Australian qualifier. The biggest bright spot for the Chiefs is that their horrific injury ledger is diminishing by the day – a number of their stars could be back for their first match against the Highlanders, with others such as Nepo Laulala and Brodie Retallick also likely to be available in the near future. Come the playoffs, the Chiefs could well have the best team available that they’ve had all season.

Jaguares
Points: 34
Ranking: 7
Games remaining Stormers (H), Bulls (A), Sharks (A)

The Jaguares are the highest ranked team in contention for a finals spot who haven’t actually won the competition before – they also have yet to even featured in a finals series before. On a roll prior to the June break, the Jaguares will hope to continue where they left off, but they may find that more difficult than the other teams. Whilst other teams have had the luxury of a few weeks of rest (or, at least, slightly less intensity than playing every week), the Argentinian national team is comprised solely of Jaguares players. Men such as Nicolas Sanchez, Agustin Creevy and Emiliano Boffelli featured largely in all three matches the Pumas played over the break. It will be very interesting to see whether the Jaguares fade in the final weeks of the competition or if the potential for breaking new ground galvanises the squad and they push for a historic first place in a knockout match.

Rebels
Points: 34
Ranking: 8
Games remaining: Waratahs (H), Reds (A), Highlanders (A)

The Rebels have arguably the most favourable run-in of any of the potential qualifiers, simply given the relative weakness of the Australian conference. The Victorians have intra-conference match this season – away to the Waratahs, so they will be hoping to make amends in the return fixture in Melbourne before kicking on against the Reds in Brisbane. If they can win both of those fixtures, then the Rebels could be in for a home quarterfinal – even if they can’t triumph over the Highlanders in their final match of the regular season. The Rebels will be looking to finish their season the way it started and avoid a repeat of the mid-season blip they suffered this year. Still, providing that the team doesn’t capitulate, they are on track for their first-ever appearance in the finals – a good accomplishment considering they finished bottom of the Australian teams last year and were close to being kicked out of the competition altogether.

Sharks
Points: 28
Ranking: 9
Games remaining: Lions (H), Stormers (A), Jaguares (H)

Based only on the numbers, the Sharks are unlikely to make an appearance in the top eight come the end of the season. As it stands, they’re 6 points behind their nearest rivals and by no one’s account have easy games remaining. That being said, the Sharks do have the benefit of still getting to play the Jaguares at home in Durban. It will be the end of an incredibly taxing competition for the Jaguares for reasons already mentioned, so the Sharks will fancy their chances. Win that match and there will only be two points separating the two teams – which the Sharks should be able to make up in their first two matches. Yes, the Sharks may be a long shot to snatch the Jaguares’ place in the quarterfinals – but it’s not impossible.

The final few rounds of 2018’s iteration of Super Rugby are going to be very interesting due to the many matches taking place between the top teams – some matches which will likely be repeated in the finals series. The last round of the competition, in particular, sees 6 of the teams vying for qualifier spots battling it out, meaning we’re probably not going to know who’s travelling where until the last match of the round robin. Get ready to settle in for what’s shaping up to be a titanic last three weeks in the regular season.

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Into Super Rugby's final stretch - the Contenders