Super Rugby Playoff Race Heats Up as Contenders Keep Pace

Stephen GillamContributor IIIMay 20, 2012

DURBAN, SOUTH AFRICA - MAY 05:  Hosea Gear with a off load as he is tackled by Marcell Coetzee during the Super Rugby match between Sharks and Highlanders from Mr Price Kings Park on May 05, 2012 in Durban, South Africa.  (Photo by Steve Haag/Gallo Images/Getty Images)
Gallo Images/Getty Images

There are just two weeks left before Super Rugby takes a break for the international window. After that, there are three more games in the round robin stage.

At this point, we can gain an idea of how the table will look leading into the playoffs.

What's more, this weekend went a long way in influencing where the main contenders will finish.

Early Saturday morning (NZT) the Stormers held out the Waratahs by 19-13. The result effectively removes the Waratahs from contention as they now have to win every remaining game and hope a lot of other results go their way.

Combined with the Bulls' 16-11 loss to the Highlanders in Dunedin, the Stormers now sit at the top of the South African conference.

The two sides will lock horns (and bolts of lightening—I'm not exactly sure what a Stormer would carry) in a fixture that may decide who closes the season out with that mantle.

New Zealand conference leaders the Chiefs had a bye, and the four points gained moved them to the top of the table, almost guaranteeing them a playoff berth since they can drop a full two games before hoping for beneficial results.

In Wellington, the Hurricanes paid the price for resting Beauden Barrett and Faifili Levave, as they went down 25-37 to Australian leaders the Brumbies. The Hurricanes are now six points off the top six, and though they are technically still alive, they are all but guaranteed to miss this year's postseason.

After going down to the Rebels last week, the Crusaders seriously lifted their game with a record 59-12 win over the Blues in Christchurch. With the form they've been showing for most of the season, they will be a very difficult matchup for any opponent.

At this stage, there are a few teams almost certain to qualify for the playoffs:

  1. Stormers: 49 points
  2. Chiefs: 49
  3. Brumbies: 44
  4. Bulls: 47
  5. Crusaders: 42

The sixth spot will likely be fought out by the Sharks (41), Highlanders (39) and Reds (36) at this stage.

When the Reds and Brumbies face off next week in Canberra, the Reds will have to win. If they manage that, the gap will be closed to four points and the Reds will pick up a guaranteed four points from their Round 15 bye.

With the Sharks beating the Cheetahs by 34-20, and with the Highlanders' win over the Bulls, the race is on between those two, with the second Australian side likely to be in hot pursuit if both teams lose points.

Only five weeks remain, and the margin for error from here is smaller than ever.