5 Key Battles for Super Rugby Round 19
Round 19 of Super Rugby brings the regular season to a dramatic close. While the Waratahs and the Sharks have secured top-tier qualification, for the rest there is still much to play for.
There is a Kiwi clash between the Crusaders and the Highlanders that will determine the country's top qualifier.
Round 19 also sees an all-Australian encounter between the Brumbies and the Force.
This is a round with finals places at stake for some and pride on the line for the rest.
Chiefs vs. Blues
The Chiefs vs. the Blues is a must-win game for both sides. The New Zealand pair currently sit outside the finals qualification places, and only a win will keep their seasons alive.
For the Blues, who sit ninth, a win is not enough. The victory must be vast. They must beat the Chiefs by 38 points and pick up a bonus point to squeeze past the Hurricanes into the finals. After last round's 21-13 loss to the Crusaders, beating last year's champions in such fashion will be a stunning feat.
The Chiefs' finals fate is a far more manageable affair. Beat the Blues and they are through to the next stage. A strong 24-16 win over the Hurricanes in the last round will give the champions confidence.
With the Blues missing senior players Tony Woodcock and Luke Braid, an uphill task now seemingly requires a miracle. The Chiefs are in pole position for the play-off place on offer in this tie.
Brumbies vs. Force
The Brumbies vs. the Force. For the winner, a finals place. For the loser, almost certainly an early end to the season.
The two teams have an identical record after 15 games: won nine, lost six, drawn none. They have also both picked up four bonus points. This tells you there is very little separating the sides—only a points difference of 40 in favour of the Brumbies.
The Force go into the game on the back of a 30-20 win over the Reds. The Brumbies, however, have had a week to prepare after their bye in Round 18.
A win keeps the finals hopes in their own hands. Failing that, the pair can qualify if they pick up a bonus point and the Blues beat the Chiefs. A lot of ifs and buts. The simpler option is just to win this key, crunch battle.
Crusaders vs. Highlanders
The Crusaders cruise into this clash knowing a finals place is assured. Win, and they secure second place. Lose, and their worst outcome is the fourth finals spot.
A bonus-point win for the Highlanders would see them snatch the second-place spot from the Crusaders. The prospect of slipping to seventh if they lose and results go against them means they will not be lacking for motivation.
The Highlanders will need to bounce back in style after their 44-16 loss to the table-topping Waratahs last round. With Crusaders captain Richie McCaw requiring an extra week to rest a rib injury, the Canterbury side are not full strength. However, the returning Dan Carter, Israel Dagg and Kieran Read will make the Highlanders work for a finals-place finish.
Stormers vs. Sharks
This game has no finals places riding on it. However, there is no such thing as a dead rubber between these two South African sides.
The Sharks have wrapped up the top spot in the South African conference but will have a point to prove after their 27-20 loss to the Cheetahs in Round 18.
The Stormers kept a clean sheet last time out against the Bulls, winning 16-0. With Schalk Burger and Duane Vermeulen in the back row and Juan de Jongh and Sailosi Tagicakibau in the centres, the Stormers will be a real threat.
While the Stormers have nothing concrete to play for, they will want to uphold some pride. This game will show whether the Sharks are just experiencing a blip in form or whether it is a genuine end-of-season slump.
Lions vs. Cheetahs
The Lions vs. the Cheetahs is effectively the South African wooden spoon contest. The two teams are 13th and 14th in the table, respectively.
While both at the foot of the Super Rugby tree, both sides go into Round 19 on the back of wins. The Lions beat the Rebels 34-17 while the Cheetahs shocked the Sharks 27-20.
The Cheetahs feature Springboks Willie le Roux and Cornal Hendricks in their back three, giving them an acute running threat. The Lions, playing at home, have one of the better defensive records at the foot of the table. They will fancy their chances of containing the pace of the Cheetahs.