6 Bold Predictions for World Rugby This Weekend: European Playoffs Set to Dazzle
The postseason proceedings continue in Europe this week as the Top 14, Pro12 and Premiership campaigns edge toward their climaxes, along with the RFU Championship.
Only the best and brightest of France, England, Ireland and Scotland remain clinched in the struggle for supremacy of their respective divisions, with some all-star encounters already on the slate.
In Round 14 of the Super Rugby season, the Sharks' position at the top of the standings will come under heavy scrutiny this weekend, with their trip to the Crusaders promising to see them slip from the summit for the first time this term.
Read on for a preview of how all that action will unravel as Friday marks the beginning of what will undoubtedly be a must-watch weekend in the world of rugby.
1. Brumbies Dethrone Jake White's Sharks
Todd Blackadder's Crusaders have been an indomitable force of late, winning their last five Super Rugby fixtures on the trot and making the rise from potential also-rans to a more assured playoff contender in little more than a month.
And with that form in tow, the Canterbury outfit will grab a sixth successive victory on Saturday against the current league leaders the Sharks, no less.
That leaves the third-placed Brumbies to take full advantage of the hiccup and eradicate the two-point gap that currently separates them from their South African table superiors when they take on the Cheetahs in Bloemfontein.
Although the Cheetahs have been an offensive force to be reckoned with for periods of their 2014 season, the Brumbies showed what defensive strength they have simmering under their bonnet with a 16-9 victory over the Sharks in Round 13, and will proceed to grab first place thanks to the second-placed Chiefs resting in their bye week.
2. Castres Build on Clermont Upset to Stage Toulon Climax
Castres managed the unthinkable last weekend in bringing a halt to Clermont's 77-game home unbeaten streak, and the reigning Top 14 champions face another difficult task on Saturday, this time against Montpellier.
Thankfully, the home and away advantages have been scrapped from the record as both Top 14 semi-finals prepare to kick off in Lille, but Castres' players have more recent experience in dealing with this kind of pressure.
Rory Kockott and his band of merry men face a tough task, undoubtedly, with Montpellier tipped to become a major European force in the years to come, but Castres are no shrinking violets themselves.
Toulon's result over Racing Metro in the other semi-final will be somewhat more rudimentary, and even though the Paris club were impressive against Toulouse last weekend, Heineken Cup finalists Toulon have enough firepower to do the damage where Toulouse could not.
3. Saracens Supreme and Tigers Whimper En Route to Twickenham
Richard Cockerill's Leicester Tigers have won all eight of their Premiership semi-final playoff fixtures, but there's a first time for everything and this weekend will mark their first fall at this juncture.
Northampton Saints showed with a 74-13 win over London Wasps last week precisely what kind of offensive onslaught they're capable of raining down upon their foes, and Jim Mallinder's men will go about correcting the 16-22 loss they suffered in this same fixture back in March.
Meanwhile, Saracens will take on a Harlequins side that just about squeezed its way into contention last weekend, but where Bath were lacking in a clinical edge, the Allianz Park hosts most certainly will not.
Quins' defensive record is the third-best in the English top flight and might see them possess some sort of advantage over most teams, were Saracens not second-best in the defensive ranks and owners of a devastating attack likely to push them past the fourth-place finishers.
4. London Welsh and Rotherham Titans Set Up Championship Playoff Final
Rotherham shocked many with the way in which they managed to restrain Bristol on their own turf last weekend, limiting the Championship table toppers to a narrow 17-14 triumph.
And even though that fixture marked the third occasion this term that the Titans have suffered defeat to their West Country enemies, it will prove to be a case of fourth time's the charm for them.
There's a lot to be said for the mental side of things at this stage of any season, and Lee Blackett's men showed that they're prepared to contend for a place in the playoff final, grabbing the necessary margin win on Saturday in order to do just that.
And there, they'll come up against London Welsh, who after suffering a 38-31 defeat in Leeds last week, will showcase the same talents that were enough to push them past Carnegie twice already this term.
London Welsh are more used to these high-profile matchups after their relegation from the Premiership just last year, and it will show as they claw down the seven-point deficit.
5. Home Advantage Proves Decisive in Pro12 Playoff Semis
Glasgow Warriors have been a terror to take on at Scotstoun this season, and Munster have the displeasure of travelling to take on the Scottish giants on Friday evening in a trip that won't end well for them.
One could argue that Rob Penney's lineup possesses more star talent within it, but Gregor Townsend has set these Warriors up to be a real menace at home, and it was only last month that Glasgow got the better of Munster at Thomond Park.
And Leinster once again have a home playoff semi-final on their hands with the visit of Ulster this Saturday, with the RDS likely to have a similar, cauldron-like effect and produce the Dublin outfit as finalists.
6. Highlanders Do Double Over Hurricanes in 70-Point Affair
As things stand, it couldn't be much more finely poised between the Hurricanes and Highlanders, who are sixth and seventh in the Super Rugby standings, respectively, after 13 rounds.
The last time these New Zealand outfits met, it was the Highlanders who capitalised upon their home advantage to win 35-31 in Dunedin and fans could very well see a similar scoreline on Friday.
The Hurricanes have conceded at least 20 points in each of their five home matches this season, and though the Highlanders began their away trips in slow fashion this term, the franchise are beginning to earn their wings after grabbing a collective 62 points from their last two away fixtures.
The Hurricanes defense doesn't promise to be quite as stingy as that of the Sharks' or Stormers' either, setting the stage for what could be a tremendous win in the Highlanders' search for a playoff place.