By Christopher Reive, NZ Herald
Since the competition moved to an eight-team playoff system in 2016, four Kiwi sides have featured in the hunt for the title every season. Before that, when only six teams made the playoffs, the last time half the post-season wasn’t made up of Kiwi teams was in 2013.
The Crusaders (42 points) and Hurricanes (36) have jumped well clear of the chasing field and will surely feature in the playoffs. The same assurance can’t be given for the Highlanders, Blues and Chiefs.
The trio have fallen into the mix of what has been a surprisingly even competition, with 10 teams having a realistic chance of post-season play outside the current conference leaders. But with the Hurricanes likely to finish fourth, it leaves nine teams fighting over four spots.
Dropping points to the Highlanders on Saturday might have been the final nail in the Chiefs’ coffin. However, sitting on 19 points with six rounds to play during which they have a bye, there is somehow still hope for the Hamilton side.
What works in their favour is a draw that should suit them. The Chiefs have just two local derbies left, against the Blues and Crusaders, and those are the only games they’ll play out of Hamilton. They’ll host the Sharks, Reds and Rebels in their other games, all teams against whom they should be competitive.
The Blues might have the toughest run home. With games against the Chiefs and Crusaders, and two against the Hurricanes awaiting them in the next six weeks, they’ll need to produce their best to make a meaningful improvement on their points haul of 21 for the season. Without a bye in the final six weeks, the Blues won’t get that extra week of recovery like the Chiefs and Highlanders.
The Highlanders are the likeliest to give New Zealand a third playoff team but, like the Chiefs, a draw on Saturday did them no real favours. On 25 points, they’re still behind the Sharks (28) and Jaguares (27) on the ladder, with the latter being hosted by the Highlanders on Saturday in the first fixture of a run home which also includes a trip to South Africa to meet the Lions and Stormers.
The Highlanders do not have another local derby in the regular season, so fans should be excited about their chances of a playoff appearance.
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