The Stormers’ chances of hosting a home semi-final at Newlands may hinge on the Lions beating the Waratahs this weekend. JON CARDINELLI reports.
The Stormers blew an opportunity this past Saturday. They had the Rebels on the ropes at Newlands, having put three tries past the Melbourne-based side in 46 minutes. And yet, they failed to score the fourth try and ultimately the bonus point in the 34 minutes that followed.
How they may live to regret that missed chance. That single log point may mean the difference between hosting a semi-final and travelling abroad in the penultimate game of the competition.
The Hurricanes are favourites to finish the league stage in pole position, and for good reason. With three games to go, they are 16 points clear of the second-placed Waratahs, and 13 points ahead of the next best-placed side in the New Zealand conference (the Chiefs). The Hurricanes could lose their remaining games, and still finish in first position.
The real battle over the next three weeks is for the No 2 spot. Whoever finishes in second place will earn the right to host the other semi-final.
At this stage, it seems the Waratahs and the Stormers are the prime candidates. The Stormers are well placed considering they will play the remainder of their league games in South Africa, while the Waratahs will be travelling back and forth across the Indian Ocean in a short space of time.
But the Cape side still has work to do. The failure to pick up a four-try bonus point this past Saturday could prove costly. Even if they win their next three matches, they could still finish in third position on the overall log. It would be enough to guarantee them home-ground advantage in a qualifying play-off, but not in a semi-final.
The Stormers will be monitoring the progress of the Waratahs with keen interest. Michael Cheika's men will play the Lions, Cheetahs and Reds over the next three rounds.
Ten log points may be enough to secure a home semi-final. This would see the Waratahs finishing the league stage on 51 points, a total that would exceed that of the Stormers if the Cape side scores three wins but no four-try bonus points.
Of course, if the Stormers are to have any chance of overtaking the Waratahs, then they will need things to go their way this weekend. They would be expected to beat the Cheetahs at Newlands, especially since the central franchise is in a period of transition what with the changes to the coaching staff. The Stormers will also hope the Lions can do them a favour and stall the Waratahs at Ellis Park.
The Lions scored a significant win this past weekend against the Cheetahs. They have now won eight matches in a Super Rugby campaign, their best-ever return in the franchise’s history.
A play-off spot, however, may be out of reach. They have only two fixtures remaining, and while there's a chance they may catch the travelling Waratahs out, they will be hard-pressed to beat the Stormers at Newlands in the following derby. While the Stormers have not produced anything special in 2015, they have still managed to win all their matches against South African teams in Cape Town.
The other big game as far as South African teams are concerned is the clash in Canberra. The Bulls didn’t win a single game Down Under in 2014, and have already blown a couple of opportunities on the 2015 tour of the Antipodes.
And yet, they simply must beat the Brumbies to keep their play-off hopes alive. If they win their next two games in Australia and their final fixture against the Cheetahs, they may well sneak into the final six.
The top-placed South African side will qualify for the play-offs, while the next best side (probably the Bulls) will be pushing for sixth spot. It seems likely the Highlanders and Chiefs will occupy fourth and fifth place in the final standings, and that the exact placing could be influenced by the derby between the two sides in Dunedin this Saturday.
Both sides will enjoy challenges as well as opportunities over the next three weeks. The Highlanders play this vital derby at home, before travelling to the Hurricanes in Wellington and then to the Blues in Auckland.
The Chiefs’ last two matches are against the misfiring Reds and the log-leading Hurricanes. If the Canes do enough in the next few weeks to book a home semi-final, and can afford to rest their best players for that final league clash against the Chiefs, then the men from Waikato could be favourites to win big in that clash.
Personally, I can’t seen anybody stalling the Hurricanes’ march towards a first-placed finish. And unless the Stormers find another gear over the next few weeks, the Waratahs will finish in second position and secure a home semi-final.
As for the rest of the knockout round lineup, the Stormers and the Highlanders are my favourites to host the qualifying play-offs. Fifth and sixth spot should be occupied by the Chiefs and Brumbies respectively.
The Bulls and Crusaders need to produce something very special over the next three rounds if they are to progress to the knockout rounds. Unfortunately for the Lions, they only have two matches remaining on their schedule and may not bank sufficient log points to qualify.
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