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FEATURE Final-round curveball may open door to Brumbies top-two finish

Final-round curveball may open door to Brumbies top-two finish
3 weeks ago

Regardless of how you might view the validity of Super Rugby Pacific’s eight-team finals series (within a 12-team competition), one thing has remained true each season as the competition’s final round plays out.

There has always been some kind of last round curveball that has some degree of finals impact.

For both of the last two years, the top eight combatants weren’t confirmed until full-time in the final game of the season.

In 2022, the Highlanders took a losing bonus point out of their 31-30 loss to the Rebels in Melbourne to edge out the Western Force for the last quarter-final position. With both teams on four wins after the Force knocked over the fifth-placed Hurricanes in Perth, the Highlanders progressed with the better points differential.

Christian Lio-Willie
Crusaders’ upset win over Blues has given the defending champions an outside chance of making the top eight (Photo Joe Allison/Getty Images)

Last year, seventh and eighth were decided by the last two games of the season, with the Fijian Drua securing their first ever finals appearance with a comprehensive win over Queensland in Suva, which pushed them past the Reds into seventh spot. Then the final game allowed the Reds to hold onto eighth when the 10th-placed Force couldn’t beat the Chiefs in Perth, missing their chance to pinch the final play-off spot.

In 2024, while the top four teams and seven of the top eight have had their finals participation confirmed, the final order won’t be known until after a couple of key games are played.

The eighth-placed Drua can lock themselves in as that last finals participant, where a bonus-point win over the seventh-placed Rebels in Lautoka would allow them to overtake the Melbourne-based outfit, who will sadly bow out of Super Rugby Pacific after 14 seasons, due to financial difficulties. But should the Rebels end the Drua’s 2024 unbeaten run in Lautoka, the Fijians would be left vulnerable to the Force, who could leapfrog the Drua into eighth with a win over the ACT Brumbies in Perth in the final match of the round.

For all the criticisms of the eight-team finals format, it certainly does create real jeopardy and plenty to play for over the closing rounds.

The Crusaders, who sit 10th on the same points as the Force, play the first game of the final round and can jump into eighth themselves, even if only temporarily, with a win over Moana Pasifika.

So for all the criticisms of the eight-team finals format, it certainly does create real jeopardy and plenty to play for over the closing rounds.

Where it could get really interesting in this final round this weekend though is right at the top of the table, where the Blues and Hurricanes on 51 points are only separated by points differential, and the ACT Brumbies sit just three points adrift on 48.

Tom Wright
Tom Wright’s two tries helped ACT to a big win over Rebels which gives them hope of a top-two finish (Photo Mark Nolan/Getty Images)

The Chiefs, in fourth on 43 points, are locked into that position for the finals.

It’s worth noting Super Rugby Pacific’s tie-breaking method for teams on equal points. Teams on the same points tally, as the Blues and Hurricanes are heading into Round 15, are first separated by the number of wins.

Then come the points differential – the difference between points scored and points conceded – which is how the Blues edge ahead at the moment. After that, it’s the number of tries scored, then the difference between tries scored and tries conceded, and then if teams are still locked up after four stages of tie-breaking, the competition organisers will literally flip a coin to determine which team goes through.

I’ve always wondered about this final tie-break stage: would the coin flip be televised?

If either of the Blues or Hurricanes lose their final game of the season, the Brumbies will move ahead of them and into the top two with a win over the Western Force in Perth in the final game of the regular season on Saturday

This top-two development came about via the Crusaders’ 29-27 upset win over the Blues in Christchurch, a win that kept the Crusaders’ own faint finals hopes alive, while also ending the Blues’ nine-game winning streak.

The Blues took a losing bonus point from the game to overtake the Hurricanes, who beat the Chiefs in a nailbiter on Friday night. The Brumbies then enjoyed a bonus-point win over the Rebels on Saturday night in Canberra.

Those results put the Blues, Hurricanes and Brumbies all on 11 wins from 13 games, and that’s an important point.

Because now, if either of the Blues or Hurricanes lose their final game of the season, the Brumbies will move ahead of them and into the top two with a win over the Western Force in Perth in the final game of the regular season on Saturday night. Losing bonus points won’t save the Blues or Hurricanes either, with the Brumbies going ahead in the win column.

Furthermore, if the Hurricanes lose to the Highlanders in Wellington on Saturday afternoon, and the Blues drop the Battle of the Bombays to the Chiefs in the following game in Auckland, a Brumbies win in Perth will see them claim top spot for the first time since 2004, the year they claimed their second Super 12 Championship.

Jordie Barrett
Hurricanes are in pole position to seal a top-two spot but any slip-up against Highlanders could be costly (Photo Michael Bradley/Getty Images)

The Blues tripping up in Christchurch now presents a huge opportunity for the Brumbies, and will ensure they take as strong a team as possible to Perth – something they’ve not done in recent years, and which infamously cost them a top-two finish last year when they lost heavily after making 12 changes to their starting side.

The Brumbies will also know if they are still playing for a top-two spot by the time they finish their warm-up in Perth – the Blues and Hurricanes results will be known ahead of the Force game – or if they are already confirmed in third place. The latter scenario could easily change their mindset just minutes before kick-off.

Regardless, they’ve got there on the back of five straight wins since the heavy loss to the Blues back in Round Nine. The first of those victories was to end the Hurricanes’ unbeaten run in 2024, a win that gave ACT the belief they could definitely compete with the best New Zealand sides in the competition.

Since that win last month, the Brumbies have held out the Drua and NSW Waratahs in wet conditions, dispatched the Crusaders to celebrate the 20th anniversary of their famous final in 2004, and then properly put the Melbourne Rebels away in Canberra last Friday.

A fascinating final round awaits us, but the shadow of the inevitable curveball sits over the final six matches. It’s just a matter of when and where that curveball will land, and what kind of impact on the finals make-up it will have.

In that time, they’ve developed a scrum issue that they have mostly resolved though will remain hyper-conscious of through the finals, have rectified lineout issues from earlier in the season, and continued to shred teams who offer up broken-field opportunities via one of the most clinical counter-attacks in Super Rugby this season.

So they’ve put themselves into this potential top-two frame by playing some very good rugby, at the right time of the year, and with most elements of their game firing. They will take plenty of momentum into a home quarter-final in Canberra on 8 June, but will gain more confidence again if they win the right to host a semi-final and maybe even the decider on home turf.

After successive Super Rugby Pacific semi-final defeats in New Zealand, the Brumbies know first-hand how much more beneficial it will be to host play-off games at home. The opportunity to secure a top-two finish is as close as it has ever been during this back half of the season, and that should be all the motivation they need heading to Perth this week.

A fascinating final round awaits us, but the shadow of the inevitable curveball sits over the final six matches. It’s just a matter of when and where that curveball will land, and what kind of impact on the finals make-up it will have.

And if this final-round uncertainty is a direct result of the finals format, then perhaps there is some merit in allowing eight teams to qualify after all.

Comments

14 Comments
B
Bill 23 days ago

I think the Top 8 is great Brett, as it keeps the fans invested in their team . Your team could be 10th but only a win away from making the finals so you’re involved for 13 of the 14 rounds.

The finals is a new competition and as you say who’d want the Crusaders first up

m
mitch 24 days ago

Big advantage finishing top of the ladder with the home ground advantage and no travel. Would be great to see a Brumbies v Reds final. :-)

M
Mitch 24 days ago

I can’t see the Highlanders doing the Brumbies a favour unless the Canes spend a stack of time down to 14 men and even then the Canes still might win! Neither side duking it out in the Battle of the Bombays will want to head into the finals with a 2 game losing streak to their name. Stern Vern will ensure the Blues are better than they were last week. They’ll bounce back to beat the Chiefs which means the Brumbies have to win the title from 3rd and the Chiefs will face their bogey side, the QLD Reds on the back of 2 straight losses.

M
Mzilikazi 24 days ago

Looks a more wide open competition now than in the early rounds. Looking across the Tasman from Australia, this year there is not the same, shall we say, “fear factor” as in years past. A combination of players retiring and moving offshore has certainly had an effect, especially on the Crusaders.

Over here, the Qld.Reds, in my view, are the biggest improvers from last year.. The “Wild Goose”, Les Kiss, has begun to mould a team that, if it fires, can beat anyone. It has been interesting to watch his tactic of rotating players, giving rest spells along with crucial experience to a wide group of players. Having to play away from home will be tough, but a win over the Chiefs(in Brisbane), and close games against Blues and Hurricanes give hope.

J
Jon 24 days ago

One of the keys to the Super Rugby finals format, as opposed to in the NH for instance, is this battle for home semi’s and finals, which doesn’t happen in Europe where host venues are required. The monetary reward may also trump the playing advantage for some.

I don’t think there needs to be so many knockout games though. I would prefer the NRL style top two skip the second week of playoffs, bottom two drop off. I’m not a big fan of rest weeks but feel its better than having a top side randomly knocked out. Just for those freak occurrences, though with the 20min RC that’s less likely these days.

It’s a really interesting outlook for the Lautoka game. Highlanders I understand are going with the second stringers. How much can a side change their lineup just before the game?

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