6 Bold Predictions for the Rest of the Super Rugby Season
As international season draws ever nearer, only three rounds of the 2014 Super Rugby normal season remain, with sides from New Zealand, South Africa and Australia all making their last-ditch runs at success.
As things stand, Jake White's Sharks remain in the first-place position they've occupied since early March, and the playoffs are once again shaping up to be an onslaught of only the very elite talent in the Southern Hemisphere.
With so little time to make any last-gasp moves up the table, Super Rugby enters its most intense stages over the coming weeks. Here are six bold predictions for the remainder of the campaign outlined ahead, with some more realistic than others.
1. Brumbies Fall out of Top Six, Defending Chiefs Make Late Surge
The Brumbies will be as happy as any other Australian franchise to see their internationals return from the 3-0 Test series whitewash run over France, and the timing couldn't be better.
The Canberra outfit currently lie fourth in the overall standings but have just two games left to play, while the likes of Highlanders, Western Force and the Chiefs each have three remaining fixtures, trailing by only a handful of points.
This weekend sees Laurie Fisher's side make an extremely tough trip to face the Waratahs in Sydney, before then taking on the Western Force in a season-ending home match with a bye week in between.
That one-game disadvantage could prove pivotal in the Brumbies' bid to finish in the top six, and it's difficult to envision the side claiming more than five, or even four, points from their remaining games.
Meanwhile, the title-defending Chiefs, who see a strong contingent of All Blacks come back to their squad this week, will still be clinging on to the hope of retaining their championship, and that winning mentality will also be a decisive factor in the outings to come.
They'll travel to meet the Highlanders and Blues before the season's through—with that last-day trip to Auckland being a particular bother—but host the Hurricanes in the penultimate round.
None of those games will be easy by any means, but it's difficult to rule the Chiefs out at the same time, and having such a familiarity with silverware of late, one can see the Waikato giants just squeezing into post-season.
2. Queensland Reds Finish in Bottom Two for First Time in Five Years
Save for an extremely disappointing patch throughout the mid-2000s, the Queensland Reds have generally always been a force to consider in Super Rugby.
Between 2004 and 2009, the Australians finished 10th or lower for six successive seasons, but they have never failed to finish among the top five in Super XV.
That run ends here—this much is assured, as even if the Richard Graham's side claim maximum points from their three remaining games, those above them will deny any chance of a late revival.
And in the wake of McKenzie's exit from their helm, the Reds will very feasibly finish as low as 14th this year, matching their worst-ever Super Rugby campaign, which came in 2007.
In the final week of their season, the Reds host the Waratahs in a matchup they look extremely likely to lose. A week prior to that, they travel to the Western Force fortress at nib Stadium.
However, while those all-Australian encounters are undeniably campaign-deciding, it's this weekend's journey to Melbourne that sits as the real game of importance, with the Rebels currently just two places and two points below them in the overall table.
Should they lose that fixture, it could well be their last chance gone of claiming a victory this year, and with the Lions facing the last-place Cheetahs in another fixture gifting points to those teams below, they need to ensure the Rebels can't leapfrog them.
3. Sharks, Waratahs and Highlanders Earn Conference Credentials
The Sharks and the Waratahs currently lead the conference standings in South Africa and Australia, respectively, and, owing to the good form each has produced in recent weeks, are on course to keep their places until the playoffs.
Each side has lost just three of its last nine games, but to say such strong outfits will do well until the post-season isn't all that bold.
It's a bigger risk to say that the current New Zealand conference leaders, the Crusaders, will drop off the top of their standings before the normal campaign is through and will be replaced by a Highlanders line-up in desperate need of its All Blacks.
Both franchises have three games left on their slate, with the third-placed Crusaders taking on the Hurricanes and the Blues over the next fortnight, while Jamie Joseph's squad collide against the Chiefs and the Waratahs.
A journey to Sydney is daunting for any side right now, but the potentially devastating Highlanders will undoubtedly go into the onslaught with a nothing-to-lose attitude, and the stars of Aaron Smith, Malakai Fekitoa and Ben Smith should shine.
The real crunch clash comes in Christchurch, though, and the fates bring these two teams together for the final game of their campaigns, deciding whose season ends at the AMI Stadium and who gets to keep chugging on.
The Crusaders are renown for being particularly hard to budge at their Canterbury abode, especially when stakes are their highest.
But the Highlanders have performed admirably away to the Sharks, Chiefs and Hurricanes this season and hold the potential for one more display in their arsenal.
4. Hurricanes and Waratahs Set Up 2014 Finale
In line with our predictions, the Hurricanes will come sixth in the standings, setting up a qualifying final against the Highlanders.
And having lost to their Dunedin foes by tight margins on two occasions this season, one can be hopeful that the third time will indeed be the charm for Mark Hammett's side.
When at full strength, the Hurricanes squad is electric, and Beauden Barrett is among the world's most entertaining and in-form players at present, capable of leading this team to new heights.
After that tie, an even more testing trip to the Sharks await in the semi-final, but White's men haven't exactly been an unbeatable force at home during 2014, with half of their defeats coming in Durban.
When at their best, the pragmatic, almost militant Sharks look unstoppable, but it's difficult to know which side will turn up at times, and the Hurricanes have precisely the free-flowing and fluid style needed to crack the lock.
5. New South Wales Wins Unique Dual-Code Double
This year brought New South Wales its first State of Origin triumph in nine years, and what a success it would be for the east coast state to claim its first Super Rugby title in the same six-week span.
But that's what the Waratahs can look forward to contributing after going through an endearing stretch of form over the last two months.
Unbeaten since the last week of April, Michael Cheika is seeing his men produce the goods at precisely the right moment, finally performing to the standards many thought they were capable of coming into this campaign.
Provided the Sharks don't make the final, the Waratahs should and by all chances will have a home final should they make it there themselves, which looks well within the realms of possibility as things stand.
In attack, the team look malleable and adaptable. Not only possess a host of key stars among their ranks, but they are promoting a more team-based ethic that often paves the way to silverware as well.
It's no surprise that a decent chunk of the squad have seen recent involvement with the Wallabies, and they will have as much motivation as any other outfit to make history not just for their club, but for the area they represent.
6. Israel Folau Ties Super Rugby Try-Scoring Record
Top try-scorer credentials don't always go hand-in-hand with a team's championship success, but Israel Folau can expect to win both this term, having already crossed the whitewash on 10 occasions.
What makes that achievement all the more incredible is that the fullback actually missed a decent portion of his campaign after being controversially ruled out of play by the ARU, but he's very much back and as dangerous as ever.
The current record for Super Rugby tries scored in a single season stands at 15, claimed by Joe Roff in 1997 and Rico Gear in 2005, but Folau can expect to join those ranks with a maximum of five games left in his season.
Granted, that would require an average of one try per game, but so impressive was his form in two of the three Tests against France in recent weeks that he looks fully capable of such a feat.
A Round 19 clash against the Reds might be a particular opportunity for Folau to rack up some scores, making up for those fixtures that might pose a more stubborn test.