There are just three rounds of Super Rugby ‘s regular season remaining with week 14 now in the books.
Read on as we wrap up another busy weekend of action across New Zealand, Japan, Australia, South Africa and Argentina.
BRUMBIES HEADING HOME HAPPY
The unfashionable, ugly step-sister of Australian rugby have done it again, with the Brumbies having all but secured the Australian conference title for the second straight year.
Unfancied in the preseason, and predicted to slip down the ladder, the Brumbies need just one win from their final three games to secure a home final in Canberra – likely to be against either the Highlanders or Chiefs in mid-July.
For now, the Brumbies deserve a couple of days to bask in an unbeaten two-match tour of Africa and Argentina, knocking off the Kings and Jaguares to return with nine competition points and a nine-point margin on the Waratahs in the Australian conference.
In Buenos Aires, it was little-known duo Tom Banks and Andy Muirhead who exemplified what the Brumbies have been about since the onset of Super Rugby – stepping up and doing a job with little fanfare or self-promotion.
The backline duo each finished with a double within five-minute blocks, Muirhead’s two late five-pointers ensuring the Brumbies picked up the bonus-point which has given them a little extra breathing space at the top of the Aussie ladder.
Having seen David Pocock, Stephen Moore, Joe Tomane and Matt Toomua all depart, and missing Christian Leali’ifano, the Brumbies were given little hope of again reaching the playoffs. But a workmanlike pack, and a backline with just enough Test quality to build an attack around, have coach Stephen Larkham on the cusp of another postseason before he joins the Wallabies fulltime.
Given the Brumbies still trail the fifth-placed New Zealand team, the Blues, by five points, the mess that is the Super Rugby draw and finals system will continue to be a major talking point after the June Test break.
The Highlanders were able to overcome that draw inadequacy in week one of the playoffs last year, and they may yet be headed back to Canberra again in two months’ time.
ALL ROADS LEAD TO CHRISTCHURCH
But long before they may have to contemplate that showdown, the Highlanders have a far greater challenge awaiting them in the return southern derby in Christchurch this week.
The Highlanders will head up the South Island to face the unbeaten Crusaders, Tony Brown’s side on a nine-match winning run themselves, for what looms as another scintillating contest between the two great New Zealand rivals.
At the weekend, the Highlanders saw off a determined Waratahs side while the Crusaders took care of the lowly Rebels to extend New Zealand’s domination of their Australian Super Rugby counterparts to a perfect 20 matches this season.
Trailing the Waratahs at halftime, the Highlanders made the most of a yellow card to NSW lock Dean Mumm – the New Zealanders scoring two quick tries in Mumm’s absence to regain a lead they never relinquished.
The importance of discipline won’t be lost on the Highlanders, who earlier this year were reduced to 14 men for the final 10 minutes against the Crusaders. After a frenetic first 70 minutes, the one-man advantage proved pivotal as the Crusaders ran in two late tries to steal the victory in Dunedin.
While it wasn’t their best performance of the season, the Crusaders were never headed as they recorded a bonus-point win in Melbourne on Saturday night. The seven-time champions could yet welcome back a host of All Blacks in Christchurch on Saturday, with Cody Taylor, Owen Franks, Joe Moody, Scott Barrett and Ryan Crotty all a chance to return.
LIONS, STORMERS CAN PLAN FOR PLAYOFFS
While there remains a mathematical chance of the Brumbies and Crusaders being toppled in their respective conferences, both the Lions and Stormers can already look to home quarterfinals.
The Lions locked up another playoff in Johannesburg and second spot, at least, on the overall ladder with a 54-10 belting of the Kings in a rare Sunday afternoon fixture in South Africa.
And they did it with 14 men for 49 minutes after hooker Robbie Coetzee was sent off in the first half; Kings players Irne Herbst and Chris Cloete also falling foul of the referee albeit for the less serious sanction of a yellow card.
The Lions reinforced their quality by running in five second-half tries despite being down a man, and they will now look for either the Highlanders or Hurricanes to upset the Crusaders an open up the prospect of stealing away top spot overall and the all-important No.1 seeding for the playoffs.
While the Stormers were beaten on the road in Durban, the Bulls’ loss to the Hurricanes means the Cape Town side cannot be toppled from the summit of Africa 1. Even if the Pretoria side finished with a flourish and finished with three straight bonus-point wins, the Stormers would still finish on top because of their seven victories even if they dropped all of their final three games.
FORCE HAVE WOOD ON ILL-DISCIPLINED REDS
Their Super Rugby future still unclear, the Force again managed to distance themselves from off-field uncertainty with a comprehensive 40-26 win over the Reds.
While the boot of veteran fly-half Peter Grant, and further poor discipline from the Reds, were pivotal, the Force did manage three tries and a further penalty-try to again show the attacking progress they have made under young coach Dave Wessels.
The 14-point win was the Force’s third straight over the Reds and seventh from their last 10 encounters. Wessels’ side remain a mathematical chance of playing finals football, but face a far greater test than the Reds when they welcome the Hurricanes to Perth on Saturday night.
The Reds, meanwhile, have already skipped town to Samoa where they face the Blues in an historic showdown in Apia. Given what they’ve turned out in recent times, and the heat coming from all corners of the Queensland rugby fraternity, it’s probably the best possible place the Reds can be.
WHAT THEY SAID:
“The combination is working really well. We put Aidan [Toua] out on the left wing and I think he’s been finding good space and good opportunity. Then Tom [Banks] at fullback has got genuine pace and a couple of the plays tonight were tailor-made for him to score and it was pleasing to see him get over. The wingers and Tom are communicating really well and I think that certainly helps the combination and his confidence.” – Brumbies coach Stephen Larkham.
“I’m filthy, simple as that. We can’t sustain 80 minutes of football. We scored the first try and then we just go into a mode of ‘the game’s over’, and taking soft options after that. We ended up getting the lead (back) and then we feel content and go into our shells again.” – Reds coach Nick Stiles.