Round Nine is now over and it is time to start looking ahead to the semifinals with just five weeks to go. To me, there are still six teams in the hunt for a top four position.
The Bulls will top the table with only one more road game to play. The Crusaders will come in second despite having a tough run in. I'm backing the Waratahs to come in third. They have an easy draw compared to that of the other contenders. The Reds will come in fourth. They have shown good form of late and have had a successful tour to South Africa.
In saying that, they still have to play the Stormers and Bulls, who will both prove to be tough. The Stormers don't make the cut as they still have to play the Crusaders, Bulls and Reds. The Brumbies have an outside shot but also have a hard draw.
Other than those six teams, the Blues, Hurricanes and Chiefs have all looked good at times while the Sharks have shown some good form over the past few weeks.
The Cheetahs, Highlanders and Force have all showed what they are capable of. However, they haven't been capable of winning regularly enough to get a look in. Finally, the Lions haven't managed a win yet and will struggle to do so.
So that should give you a pretty good idea of where I think the teams are as we move on to see how they all stack up.
1. The Bulls (1): Last Week: Won vs Chiefs 33-19 Wins/Loss: 7-1
The Bulls regain the top spot after a good win on the road. They looked like a completely different team compared to the team that turned up in Auckland the week before and were too good for the struggling Chiefs. Only one more game before they return to the fortress that is Loftus Versfeld.
Positives: A better performance this week. They have ensured they will finish their road trip with at least a winning record, which is good.
Negatives: Still one more game to go before they return home. Don't be surprised if the Reds beat them this weekend.
2. The Crusaders (2): Last Week: Won vs Waratahs 20-13 Win/Loss: 6-1-1
A win over one of the top teams in the competition allows the Crusaders to hold their ranking. It was a hard fought game that the Crusaders only clinched in the dying minutes with Kahn Fotualii's try. Their forward pack was dominant and continues to impress. It will be a magnificent encounter when they take on the Bulls.
Positives: Again look to be one of the top teams by playing typical Crusaders rugby. Defence was brutal.
Negatives: They looked reluctant to use their backs at times, but as we know, they are devastating with the likes of Carter, Fruean, Guilford, and Maitland.
3. The Stormers (4): Last Week: Won vs Blues 33-21 Win/Loss: 6-2
The Stormers comfortably accounted for a flat looking Blues side. The Blues came back strongly after half time but the Stormers defense is too strong. They weren't able to penetrate the same way they tend to against other teams and the Stormers were run away victors. The Stormers have tough games in the weeks to come, which may decide their season.
Positives: A good win over the team that tore the Bulls to shreds last week.
Negatives: Their draw is a hard one in the coming weeks. They won't do it easy if they do make it.
4. The Reds (5): Last Week: Won vs Lions 41-26 Win/Loss: 5-3
The Reds have gone two for three in South Africa. That in itself deserves a pat on the back even if the wins were against the Lions and the Cheetahs.
Remember their loss was only by two points, and you would have to say that the Reds tour was a very good one, especially considering the Reds' form in South Africa in recent years. I think that's reason enough to raise them in the rankings this week.
Positives: Their tour to South Africa was impressive.
Negatives: They will be tired as they take on the Bulls this week. Also still have to play the Stormers, which will be hard.
5. The Waratahs (3): Last Week: Lost vs Crusaders 20-13 Win/Loss: 6-3
The closeness at the top of these rankings is shown by the fact that one loss causes the Waratahs to drop two places this late in the season. They stuck with the Crusaders for most of the game but the Crusaders got on top in the last 20 as they so often do.
Not all doom and gloom though, the Waratahs don't have such a hard run in home having played all four teams in front of them. Look for them in the semifinals.
Positives: Looked capable of beating the Crusaders, something they may have to do come finals time.
Negatives: A loss is always a negative, so let's stick with that.
6. The Brumbies (7): Last Week: Won vs Cheetahs 61-15 Win/Loss: 6-2
I don't think you can read too much into the Brumbies' win over the Cheetahs. They won a home game against an average Cheetahs side. I'm not putting them up, but they did put them away so I won't drop them.
Positives: Sixty-one points must be seen as a positive. Wait until next week to judge them. I'm finding it hard this week after a game against the Cheetahs and the bye over the past two weeks.
Negatives: Again, it's not easy to judge them at the moment. Watch this space.
7. The Blues (6): Last Week: Lost vs Stormers 33-21 Win/Loss: 4-4
The Blues looked very flat against the Stormers. Other than a period after the break, they looked far from the team that they were a week earlier against the Bulls.
Consistency has been a problem all season and it looks as though this problem is going to continue for now.
Positives: They have shown that they are capable of beating anyone in the competition by playing hard and getting stuck up front.
Negatives: Doing that on a weekly basis seems to be a problem.
8. The Hurricanes (9): Last Week: Bye Win/Loss: 3-4-1
Go up based on the fact that I had to put the Chiefs down. Nothing to write home about so far though. They haven't won a game since round three.
Positives: Hopefully the bye has got them back on the right track. They did not look bad against the Crusaders.
Negatives: Where to start? They were brilliant for three weeks and have been poor ever since.
9. The Sharks (10): Last Week: Bye Win/Loss: 3-5
The Sharks go up for the same reason the Hurricanes did. It's hard to believe that the Sharks and the Hurricanes have the same number of wins given the fact that the Sharks lost their first five games and the Hurricanes won their first three.
Positives: Good form in the last few weeks sees them continue to climb (even without playing).
Negatives: I'll say it again, those five losses as the start of the season were costly.
10. The Chiefs (8): Last Week: Lost vs Bulls 33-19 Win/Loss: 4-4
After the Chiefs won their first three games, they haven't been able to string two wins together. They have lost four games and their last win came against the lowly ranked Highlanders.
They have shown glimpses of brilliance but haven't been consistent enough to win games.
Positives: They were competitive for most of the game against the Bulls. If it wasn't for Stephen Donald choking with his kick from straight out in front, we could have had a very good finish and a different result.
Negatives: To go with everything else, they have lost their captain, Mils Muliaina, to injury.
11. The Force (13): Last Week: Won vs Highlanders 41-27 Win/Loss: 2-6
The Force have strung together back-to-back wins with a commanding win over the Highlanders.
The game was close for the first 60 minutes before the Force stepped up a gear and ran away with the game in the final 20 minutes. James O'Connor was sublime.
Positives: Two wins in a row is good. Their backs looked dangerous.
Negatives: Another team who have left their run too late.
12. The Highlanders (11): Last Week: Lost vs Force 41-27 Win/Loss: 2-7
There are so many things wrong with the Highlanders' game at the moment I won't even start on them.
One thing I do want to mention though is their ability to catch the ball. It's such a simple skill that U-7's are capable, but these professional rugby players don't seem able to.
Positives: They looked dangerous at times. Forwards went well.
Negatives: The injuries to Dagg, Mackintosh, and Donnelly are hurting them.
13. The Cheetahs (12): Last Week: Lost vs Brumbies 61-15 Win/Loss: 2-6
After a promising start, the Cheetahs have faded. They improved from last season which is a positive. Despite this you don't lose 61-15 and not fall in the rankings.
Positives: Looking at the season as a whole, they came away with victories over the Sharks and the Hurricanes. Still have to play the Lions and Force, which are both winnable games.
Negatives: 61 points allowed.
14. The Lions (14): Last Week: Lost vs Reds 41-26 Win/Loss: 0-8
Eight straight losses. Need I say anymore?
Positives: They seem capable of scoring points. They scored 26 in the weekend and don't forget their 65 point haul against the Chiefs.
Negatives: Defense continues to let them down.
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