We are now halfway through the 2009 Super 14 and it is time to start thinking about who the contenders for the top four are. The competition has been very even this year with only the Bulls and the Sharks breaking out from the rest of the teams and making themselves real threats to take the title.
Here's my prediction at this stage on how I think the teams will stack up in the end:
1. The Sharks
So far this season the Sharks have been the stand out team winning seven games and losing only one. To go with this the Sharks have only got one more away game which is against the Cheetahs this weekend, a game the Sharks would have to be favoured to win.
After this the Sharks have four home games along with a bye. The toll travel takes on the New Zealand and Australian teams cannot be underestimated, which is why the Sharks would have to be favourites to stay on top and win the majority of their remaining matches.
2. The Bulls
The Bulls got away to a great start winning their first five games. However they have been brought back down to earth and the side-effects of travel are starting to show as they went down to the Crusaders on Friday night and the Highlanders the week before.
In saying this though the Bulls have now got back the world best lock in Victor Matfield and try scoring machine Bryan Habana from injury. The return of these two players, particularly Matfield will bolster the Bulls line up considerably and should see them through to the top four alright.
Looking at the draw for the Bulls they have two games in Australia before heading back to South Africa. The Bulls are one of, if not the, toughest team to play on their own turf which is the other main reason the Bulls should win most of their remaining games.
3. The Crusaders
This may seem an interesting pick. The Crusaders have not had an ideal start to their 2009 campaign winning only four matches, losing three and coming away with one draw. To go with this they have just lost centre Casey Laulala who has been on sublime try-scoring form so far this season.
So why will the Crusaders make the top four you ask?
To start with the Crusaders are capable of beating any team in the competition. Their defence is rock solid and while they may not score a whole lot of points, they are very strong defensively. This is the foundation for winning matches. Defence. If you can defend the points will come, and so they will for the Crusaders.
True they still have a bye and a journey to South Africa to come, but this may not be as intimidating as it may first seem.
In South Africa they take on the Sharks, the Cheetahs and the Lions. Firstly they take on the Sharks which gives them the best chance of winning as they will be fresh off the plane and ready to go, without all those side-effects of touring.
As the Cheetahs and the Lions are both struggling this year the Crusaders would have to be happy about having to play them in their second and third games away in South Africa instead of having to take on a higher quality opposition.
After they get back home they have a reasonably easy draw which should see them through to the top four and a semi final date in South Africa the next week.
Remember, never count out the Crusaders!
4. The Highlanders
The Highlanders haven't made the top four since 2002 and of all the teams since then you wouldn't exactly think that this one is going to be the one. But, if a few results go their way, this Highlanders team has as good a chance as anyone at making it.
The Highlanders started off with three losses. Two of these being last minute heart-breakers against the Brumbies and the Hurricanes. Since then the Highlanders have picked themselves up well winning three of their last four games and conceding only 34 points.
This works out to be 8.5 points per game. As I mentioned before, defence wins games. If the Highlanders can keep their opponents to less than 10 points in every game they will have a very good chance of winning looking at the flare available to them in their backs.
The two of the next three games are there for the taking for the Highlanders against the Reds and the Stormers, both at home.
The other is against the out of form Blues which the Highlanders will fancy their chances in but playing away from home means anything could happen. They will struggle against the Sharks in Durban but will be targeting their final two games against the Lions and the Force as two that they must win to proceed into the top four.
If these results go the Highlanders way, which they very likely will do, it will be hard to go past them finishing in the top four.
The Waratahs: Like always the Waratahs started off with a hiss and a roar but like always I can see them fading and with a trip to South Africa and a bye still to come the Tahs' have a hard run in if they are to be semi-finalists this year.
The Chiefs: The Chiefs have had some impressive wins of late but with a bye and three games in South Africa to come the Chiefs will find it hard to continue to keep winning games the way they have been.
The Hurricanes: Once again the Hurricanes have not lived up to expectations. They have been to inconsistent and haven't been winning their games convincingly enough to make me put think they will finish in the top four.
The Brumbies: While they are not completely out of it I just don't see the Brumbies as having the consistency to make the top four this year.
The Blues: 223 points against in seven games is far too many.
The Force: The Force still have a journey to the republic ahead of them and still have to play some of the competitions leading teams. They have only been average so far and I can't see their record improving enough to get them into the semi-finals.
The Stormers: With only two wins and three games on the road to go the Stormers season is as good as over.
The Lions: While they are very strong and tough to beat at home, they are the competitions easy beats away from home. Despite a gutsy performance against the Chiefs on Saturday, the Lions will struggle to win too many more games this season.
The Reds: The Reds are a side full of promise but with only two wins after seven games it's too much of an ask for them to jump nine places on the table.
The Cheetahs: Zero wins so far and not too many more coming.
Still A Glimmer Of Hope:
The Season's Over: