The Waikato Chiefs’ two-year reign as Super Rugby champions could end today as the penultimate regular-season round takes on the sudden-death immediacy of the postseason playoffs.
Anything less than a win over the Wellington Hurricanes in Hamilton in the opening match of the 18th round will see the end of the Chiefs’ bid for their third straight title and ensure a new champion is crowned in the final on Aug. 2.
The match is no less urgent for the Hurricanes, who have only one match left in the season because of a last-round bye and need as many championship points as possible to avoid being elbowed out of the top-six playoffs.
Defeat could derail the campaigns of even the best-placed teams, reshuffling the 10 in contention.
As the round begins, the New South Wales Waratahs lead the table, three points ahead of South Africa’s Sharks, who are also three points ahead of the Christchurch-based Crusaders. These teams lead their regional conferences.
The Waratahs, with matches remaining against the Otago Highlanders and Queensland Reds, can reach a maximum of 12 wins and 58 points — a contrast to last season, when the Chiefs topped the table with 12 wins and 66 points.
The disparity indicates the closeness of this season’s competition: 58 points was only good enough last season for fifth place, and the last qualifier, the Central Cheetahs, had 54 in sixth.
The Pretoria-based Bulls, in 10th place, have the last and leanest chance of making the playoffs.
With bonus-point wins in their remaining matches against the Western Stormers and Melbourne Rebels, the Bulls could reach 43 points — good enough for fourth on the current table — but it is unlikely movement among the leaders will allow the three-time champions to finish inside the top six.
The seventh-place Western Force, the eighth-place Auckland Blues and the Chiefs all have 36 points and must win their remaining games while depending on the results of other matches to have any chance of advancing.
The Chiefs have responded to their desperate position by making seven changes for today’s clash with the Hurricanes, dumping five of the backs who started in last weekend’s 29-25 loss to the Highlanders at Dunedin.
“A lot of effort went in to winning two championships and I’m not so sure that conscious desire to win three has been as evident,” assistant coach Tom Coventry said. “I still think it lies latent in us. I see it in us when we train and I’ve seen it in glimpses this year, but not consistently.”
The Hurricanes are no less desperate. In fifth place, they know the best they can do is to reach 46 points, then let the chips fall where they may in the last round.
Flyhalf Beauden Barrett, who has led the Hurricanes’ attacking revival, says they are mentally prepared.
“After three losses right at the start, we were really under the pump,” he said. “To be in this situation now, we’ve got a great opportunity. Emotionally, we’re going to be up for it. It’s just about doing the basics well and the intensity will be there.”
The Waratahs and Sharks still have much to play for. While each has won its regional conference, neither is assured of the first or second-place finish that would award them a home semifinal.
The Durban-based Sharks have a much better chance at that, with matches against the last-place Cheetahs and 11th-place Stormers.