Here’s one thing we do know. If the Hurricanes keep winning, and do so with the style they showed on Saturday night, Colin Cooper’s men will top the Super 14 table and earn the right to stay at home come finals time.
Beyond that, though, it’s pretty much anyone’s guess as nine teams go into the final three weeks of the round-robin with a legitimate shot at the top four and a 10th – the ever-optimistic Highlanders – claiming they’re not even out of contention.
And there are some massive matchups looming, not the least the final-round clashes between the Sharks and Bulls in Durban and Blues and Crusaders in Auckland that have the potential to be straight-out elimination contests.
After yet another round peppered by upsets, with the Blues going down to the second-from-bottom Reds at home and the Crusaders failing to roll the wooden-spoon Cheetahs in Blomfontein, the situation at the top of the table has got even tighter.
Just seven points separate first from ninth and at this stage any one of those leading nine sides have a legitimate chance of making the top four.
But who will?
That, of course, is the $64,000 question and looking at the remaining schedule, none of the contenders have what might be called a sweetheart run home.
The Canes, who control their destiny now as the top team, host the Blues this week and will travel to the Chiefs – fresh off their South African sojourn – the week after that. Both are tricky contests with major ramifications.
They at least finish with a distinctly winnable home match against the Reds, though even then that has its banana skin factor, as the Blues found out to their cost at Albany on Saturday night.
By rights the Canes, who seem to be finding form at the right time and are poised to return Piri Weepu to starting duty, really should finish the job. They should have too much for the Blues to handle this weekend and will catch a jaded Chiefs outfit the week after that.
The Bulls could be the big dangers. They should win their next two, at home to the Force and Cheetahs, though will find their closer in Durban a much tricker proposition. That huge all-African affair could well decide which of the two claim a home semifinal spot.
The Chiefs are still well in the game, but must bounce back with a win this weekend against the Stormers in Cape Town. They’ll have to guts it out the following week against the Canes, but may get both Sitiveni Sivivatu and Lelia Masaga back for that match. Their home closer against the Brumbies looks the easiest of their last three.
The fourth-placed Sharks have three straight home matches to finish on and must fancy their chances of working into a higher slot.
But they’ll still be kept honest by a solid Highlanders side, the Waratahs who have their own ambitions and then the big Bulls outfit to finish.
The Blues will have to improve out of sight to have any chance in a tough finish. Put it this way, if they tackle like they did on Saturday at Albany, they can kiss their chances goodbye.
Somehow Pat Lam’s men must find a way to cool off the Canes on Friday in the capital, and on the back of that, roll either the Brumbies in Canberra or the Crusaders at home. Two out of three may not be enough for them, though if they keep picking up the bonus points (they now have 10 all told), who knows?
Of the rest, the Force, who have found some form at the right time of the year, have two tough matches in South Africa that could put the nail in their coffin; likewise the limited Tahs, except they’ve got three South African matches; and the Brumbies, well given the way they folded against the Hurricanes, it’s difficult to see them having the stickability over the run home.
That leaves the enigmatic Crusaders. Don’t be surprised if Todd Blackadder’s seven-time champion outfit find a backdoor entry to yet another playoff appearance.
They are going to have to come from deep, and really their form does not recommend them with all those grind-out wins and that disappointing defeat to the Cheetahs at the weekend.
But if they can get past the Lions in Johannesburg this weekend, they have a home match against the Reds before closing with that visit to the Blues. All three games are distinctly winnable if the Crusaders can somehow summon some form with ball in hand.
Injuries, as always, are going to play their part.
Again the Hurricanes are the best-placed of the Kiwis, with only loosie Karl Lowe (calf) on their doubtful list.
The Blues have all sorts of problems in their loose trio, with Jerome Kaino (knee), Josh Blackie (knee), Justin Collins (head knock) all under a cloud this week, with Chris Lowrey (ACL) definitely out. On the positive front, Ali Williams should be right for starting duty this week.
The Chiefs have had yet another shocking run with injury, and are badly missing Sivivatu, Masaga and Brendon Leonard (sternum). The former two may be back next week, with Leonard’s return date still not known. They also have some walking wounded from Pretoria, with key men Richard Kahui, Stephen Donald and Mils Muliaina all having to shake off knocks.
The Crusaders have been living with injuries all year, with Ben Franks, Corey Flynn and Casey Laulala all long-term absentees, but are probably as well-placed health wise as they have been throughout the campaign.
So to a prediction: who’s going to be in the top four.
Peering into the crystal ball, which in terms of the Super 14 always presents a cloudy picture, how about this for a top four?
Hurricanes, Bulls, Chiefs and Sharks, in that order, though it should be extremely tight in terms of final positions. That would leave the Crusaders top of the close-but-no-cigar list.
Here’s how the leading contenders finish the season:
Hurricanes (34): v Blues (h); v Chiefs (a); v Reds (a).
Bulls (33): v Western Force (h); v Cheetahs (h); v Sharks (a).
Chiefs (32): v Stormers (a); v Hurricanes (h); v Brumbies (h).
Sharks (31): v Highlanders (h); v Waratahs (h); v Bulls (h).
Blues (30): v Hurricanes (a); v Brumbies (a); v Crusaders (h).
Force (28): v Bulls (a); v Stormers (a); v Highlanders (h).
Waratahs (28): v Cheetahs (a); v Sharks (a); v Lions (a).
Crusaders (27): v Lions (a); v Reds (h); v Blues (a).
Brumbies (27): v Reds (a); v Blues (h); v Chiefs (a).
Courtesy of Marc Hinton – RugbyHeavenTweet