What a weekend it was for New Zealand fortunes, even while watching the most optimistic playoff hopes come unstuck. A toe-stubbing draw at home for the Highlanders and a fast-fading one-point loss on the road for the Blues started the round badly, but a vintage slaughter in Shaketown and an emphatic away win by the Hurricanes at altitude reassured me that we’re not becoming a nation of lead-blowers.
I won’t pretend I saw much other than edited highlights because of one thing and another... having my Instagram account eighty-sixed by SANZAR not least among them... but here are some links.
The most interesting thing, seeing as no upsets were produced, is the avalanche of mathematical uncertainty going into the final round of regular play. Qualification for minor places in knockout is as tight as it has ever been.
The South African conference round robin will end in two titanic derbies, the Stormers hosting the Sharks at Newlands and the Bulls hosting the Lions at Loftus. It’s hard to envision any top eight being finalised until full time in Pretoria. Even by kick-off in Cape Town thirteen teams may still be in contention.
On Friday, the Highlanders host the Waratahs in Dunedin and the Chiefs play the Rebels in Melbourne. Those results will eliminate all but the most outlandish scenarios.
But the most fascinating one might still be possible. Unless the Highlanders win big and the Chiefs do likewise, the Rebels are the only team who, by dawn on Saturday morning in the Republic, can conclusively rule out five playoff teams coming from the South African conference. The mere possibility would be a very big cat among the wildebeest.
Consider one very plausible sequence, of the Highlanders and Chiefs both winning by eight points and then the Sharks beating the Stormers by less than seven in Cape Town (none of those results are unlikely on current form), which would guarantee the Stormers, Sharks, Bulls and Lions playing away in quarterfinals regardless of what then transpired in Pretoria.
One dream which tempts starry-eyed fans at the start of each season, of all five New Zealand teams qualifying, has never quite materialized under the current format. The teams were usually all good enough to make a quarterfinal competitive but the number of derby games made it too tough.
The proposed 2020 system, where every team plays all others once, will make that starry-eyed dream much more realistic. Great, right?
Not so fast. The grandstands will be even emptier than now, with only ten derby games per conference instead of twenty. So to justify the local unions taking big hits at the turnstiles there had better be one hell of a lower rate of injuries, and directly attributable to fierce rivalry between neighbours.
I like the way it is now, with crowds only disappointingly small instead of embarrassingly so, and with the chance of five teams from one conference getting through to knockout as unlikely as ever while still possible... even if it being based on strength across the board is less likely than it happening from a weird quirk of uniform mediocrity.
Or are these just the rationalizations of a New Zealander already embarrassed, by our largest catchment of players producing a sub-standard team for more than a decade? If the Blues don’t make the top eight of the 2020 table, calls for a shake-up at board level rather than yet another head coach will become too loud to ignore.