The first 20 weeks of the Super 15 Rugby season are in the books, and only the top six teams remain in pursuit of a championship.
Some of those six teams had to fight tooth and nail in Week 20 to secure their spot in the final stage, while others were simply fighting for pride. Here’s a look at last week’s Super 15 Rugby results:
Crusaders 25, Hurricanes 17
Rebels 38, Highlanders 37
Chiefs 26, Blues 16
Reds 14, Waratahs 12
Western Force 21, Brumbies 15
Sharks 58, Southern Kings 13
Stormers 30, Bulls 13
The Waikato Chiefs put an exclamation point on their league-leading campaign with a 26-16 victory in Week 20, and they’ll enter the playoffs with a first-round bye—as will the second-place Bulls, though they’re coming off a deflating 30-13 loss to close out last week’s action.
But before the Chiefs and Bulls can continue their pursuit of the title, the other four teams in the field will have to face off to decide those Round 22 matchups.
For the Crusaders, Reds, Brumbies and Cheetahs, there’s no looking ahead.
With a pair of do-or-die matchups on the slate for Week 21, let’s preview all the playoff action and break down what to watch for in the first round of the Super 15 Rugby playoffs.
Crusaders vs. Reds
Last Week: Crusaders 25, Hurricanes 17; Reds 14, Waratahs 12
The Crusaders capped off their regular-season schedule with a 25-17 win over the Crusaders in Week 20, but they didn’t look like a team ready to make a strong push in the playoffs.
Despite taking an early lead, the Crusaders struggled to close the door, needing a late try to close out an extremely physical Hurricanes squad. Another performance like that in Week 21 could spell an early exit for the Crusaders.
Meanwhile, the Queensland Reds were proving why they can’t be overlooked in this contest.
Needing a victory to move up to fifth place, the Reds pulled out a hard-fought 14-12 win over the Waratahs, though they took advantage of a little luck in the process.
The Warartahs had an opportunity to seal the victory with a penalty kick in the closing minutes, but the effort missed the mark and punctuated Queensland’s impressive run to the playoffs.
Now, both squads prepare to face off on Saturday for a chance to take one more step toward a title.
The No. 4 Crusaders notched 11 wins this season, propelled by some gritty performances and timely scoring. Canterbury probably would have liked to end their regular season on a more impressive note, but sometimes it takes a grind-out affair to set the tone for ensuing matches.
Just a win behind the Crusaders in the tables, the Reds have picked up steam at just the right time, fresh off a three-week layoff prior to their Week 20 victory.
Both squads should be well-prepared for a physical contest, but that extra rest for Queensland could be the difference between an early exit and a Round 22 berth.
Prediction: Reds 28, Crusaders 19
Brumbies vs. Cheetahs
Last Week: Western Force 21, Brumbies 15; Cheetahs (Bye)
Unlike the Reds, the Brumbies followed a couple weeks off with a crushing 21-15 loss to the Western Force last week, raising questions about how prepared they are to take on the No. 6 Cheetahs fresh off a bye in Week 20.
Still, the Brumbies went 10-4 in regular-season play and head coach Jake White admits last week’s loss was primarily a product of looking too far ahead, per SuperXV.com:
We're probably guilty of thinking about next week, we're just lucky that this loss came this week when we are still in with a shot. It was never going to be a situation where we just showed up and took the points and that perhaps is how we approached this game. We know we've played a lot of good rugby this year, we can't be worried about this denting our confidence.
Hopefully White is right in assuming the loss was simply a result of overconfidence. After a subpar performance in Week 20, the Brumbies should use that defeat as fuel for a much better outing in front of their home crowd in the playoffs.
The Cheetahs will be well rested following a Week 20 bye, however, and are coming off a 34-13 dismantling of the Blues the previous week. In what is shaping up to be a hard-hitting affair, the Cheetahs may have the edge they need to take down the No. 3 Brumbies.
And it also helps they have confidence in their abilities. As quoted by SuperXV.com, Cheetahs captain Adriaan Strauss is convinced the team has made the strides necessary for a title run:
Our mindset is definitely the difference between this year and last year. This year we really have the belief that we can make it. We've had some good results and some youngsters also put up their hands. We've got a bit of a rest now but we'll still be training for the play offs. That's for sure.
Confidence and rest bode well for the visitors, but will it be enough to upend the third-place finishers on their home turf?
Prediction: Brumbies 34, Cheetahs 28
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