The Crusaders, Lions, Stormers and Brumbies have already won their respective Conferences, and the Chiefs, Hurricanes, Highlanders and Sharks have secured the wildcard qualifying positions. Five of this week’s nine matches will determine the quarter final matchups, with only two teams already knowing exactly where they’ll finish.
Highlanders v Reds – 17:35 (AEST) Friday
The Highlanders are currently seventh on 46 points. A bonus point loss or better will be enough to keep them there, but they can advance no further up the table. A heavy loss leaves them vulnerable to the Sharks, but they would require a bonus point win over the high-flying Lions to move up from eighth.
Chiefs v Brumbies – 15:15 Saturday
The Chiefs currently sit sixth with 53 points. In order to claim fifth they need to win this, preferably with a bonus point, then await the result of the Hurricanes v Crusaders blockbuster immediately after: a Crusaders win would see the Chiefs heading to Canberra next week, but if the Hurricanes win then the long-haul flight to Cape Town awaits, beginning with a 2am Sunday bus trip to Auckland.
The Brumbies on 34 points now trail the third-placed Stormers by five, and with just six wins to the Capetonians nine, even a bonus point win and a Stormers loss isn’t enough to bridge the gap. Come what may they’ll finish fourth and host either the Chiefs or Hurricanes next week.
Hurricanes v Crusaders – 17:35 Saturday
The Crusaders, top of the table on 63 points, face a simple equation: win and carry the historically crucial home advantage into the finals series, lose or draw and likely finish second and face travelling to Johannesburg for the Grand Final should they make it that far.
The Hurricanes’ prospects are a little more complicated due to the preceding match, but on the plus side they’ll know exactly what is required to get the best outcome, that being a quarter final in Canberra not Cape Town. Not because the Brumbies are the easier opponent, but because the likelihood of winning a playoff in South Africa one week and another back in Australasia the next isn’t great.
Sharks v Lions – 01:15 Sunday
The Lions (61) can overtake the Crusaders in top spot if they win in Durban and the Crusaders lose in Wellington. Any other permutation leaves them second overall and probably hosting the Highlanders.
The Sharks (42) can overtake the Highlanders on the points table, but only if they win with a bonus point and the Highlanders lose without one. Any other outcome leaves them eighth and also sweating on the Hurricanes v Crusaders result to see if they’re bound for Christchurch or Johannesburg.
Bulls v Stormers – 03:30 Sunday
The Stormers on 39 and in third place currently hold a five point lead over the Brumbies, and have won three more matches. Even if they lose and the Brumbies pick up an improbable bonus point win over the Chiefs, that buffer will be enough to hold onto third and host either the Hurricanes or Chiefs.
The Highlanders and Chiefs look set to heap more misery on their Australian opponents, the Lions shouldn’t be pushed too hard by the Sharks, and the Stormers result is irrelevant in terms of the big picture.
All eyes, therefore, will be on the Hurricanes v Crusaders at Westpac Stadium with that result determining who has to cross the Indian Ocean next week, and perhaps back again the following week. Too close to call, but the Crusaders greater depth may be enough to get them home even in the absence of several All Blacks from their 23.
QF 1: 1. Crusaders v 8. Sharks
QF 2: 2. Lions v 7. Highlanders
QF 3: 3. Stormers v 6. Hurricanes
QF 4: 4. Brumbies v 5. Chiefs
NOTE RE: SEMI FINAL DRAW
The winners of quarter finals 1 and 4, and 2 and 3, will meet in the semi finals with the higher-seeded team hosting. This means, for example, that should the Chiefs win in Canberra they would have just two possible semi final destinations rather than the four they had to allow for last year under the highest- v lowest-seeded winner system.