Winners and Losers for Super Rugby Round 18
The penultimate weekend of the 2014 Super Rugby season saw the Waratahs clinch first place for the normal season, the Australian outfit now sitting even prettier at the table's summit, seven points clear of their nearest competition.
But that was one of the less surprising storylines during Round 18, which generated a handful of shock results not quite as rudimentary in the way they unfolded.
Teams, players and nations as a whole each saw positives and negatives of their own in the most recent instalment of Super Rugby action, where clubs went about making some of their final moves as we edged one step closer to the post-campaign drama.
Winners: Waratahs' Title Run-in and Israel Folau's Scoring Exploits
With 53 points to their name thanks to a Round 18 trouncing of the Highlanders, the Waratahs cemented their place atop the competition standings this weekend.
The Super Rugby trophy will be theirs to keep for a year, and Israel Folau once again got on the scoresheet—taking his 2014 tally up to 12—during the team's 44-16 triumph.
The Wallabies star now sits just three tries off the joint record of 15 in one season held by Joe Roff (1997) and Rico Gear (2005), with a maximum of three games left for him to not only match the number himself but surpass it.
Michael Cheika is likely to ring the changes for Saturday's low-risk outing against the Reds in Queensland, meaning Folau may get limited time in which to add to his tally until his side take to the play-off semi-finals later in July.
For now, New South Wales will merely rejoice in their accomplishment, paying little mind to the individual feats within reach. The victory marks the culmination of a campaign's graft, finally recognised in material form.
Losers: Reds' Dismal 2014 Gets Worse in Perth
Fifteen games into the season and the Reds saw another setback in their endeavours at nib Stadium on Saturday, losing 30-20 to a resilient Western Force.
In a way, the Queensland giants can be hopeful that their last fixture of the season is against a Waratahs side who may opt to field a weakened team.
However, sitting in 12th spot as we head into the final round, there is the chance that if things go against them in the next round, both the Lions and the Cheetahs could still force them into a 14th-place finish.
For a franchise of their size and history, it shouldn't be deemed acceptable.
James Horwill has been at the battlefront in a long, tiring season for the Reds, and their year to forget may yet end with one last, stoic outing that shows that there's fight in this squad yet, or simply peter out with the same limp demeanour that's been so apparent in recent months.
Winners: South Africa's Fortresses
The Cheetahs' surprise win over the Sharks at Free State Stadium on Saturday was one of Round 18's biggest upsets, but it was in keeping with the motif of strong South African home assaults, too.
The Stormers' 16-0 beating of the Bulls and the Melbourne Rebels' defeat in Lions territory also held up an endearing account for South African teams' propensity for fortress-like displays when in front of a home crowd.
The Stormers' holdout meant that the three South African hosts conceded an average of just 12 points apiece in Round 18, and the Bulls, Stormers and Lions will get their chance to show similar stinginess when they round off their seasons next week.
Losers: Hurricanes' Play-off Aspirations
As things stand, Mark Hammett's Hurricanes sit fifth in the overall standings, but they are the only club taking a rest in Round 19, so their play-off hopes rest completely in the hands of their rivals.
The Brumbies, Western Force, Chiefs and Blues are all hot on their heels, each lying one point off the Wellington outfit apart from the latter party, who are a less daunting five points away.
The Blues would need to hand the Chiefs a considerable thrashing in Auckland next week to end their campaign in the top six, but regardless of that result, it seems likely that someone will knock the Hurricanes down from fifth, if not out of post-season contention entirely.
Hammett's men lost 24-16 in Waikato, and they are ultimately subject to their own shortcomings, having failed to seal their fate earlier on. It makes for some incredibly tense viewing next weekend as far as their representatives are concerned.
Winners: Dan Carter's End-of-Season Impact
Having made his substitute comeback last week, Dan Carter made his full return in Crusaders colours on Saturday, starting for the first time in 2014 to lead his club to a 21-13 win over the Blues.
And how significant his showing was, as Carter set up the try that would ultimately put Crusaders' result beyond the visitors, assisting Nemani Nadolo seven minutes from time and kicking both of his attempts on goal in the process.
Rugby Championship inclusion is a firm possibility once again for Carter, and in his first 80-minute outing of they year, the fly-half star was quick to show Steve Hansen some of the skills he may yet put to use before finalising his squad choices in time for next year's Rugby World Cup.