The competition for the Australian conference title is heating up, after the Waratahs claimed a come-from-behind win in South Africa, to expand the contenders to three.
Until that match it looked like an uphill battle for the Waratahs to make the finals, but with the Brumbies and Rebels going down in New Zealand, the Melbourne franchise sits just two points ahead of their northern rivals.
With three Kiwi teams well-entrenched in the Australasian group wildcard spots, the automatic qualification slot looms as the only Aussie chance to make the playoffs.
Let’s take a closer look at the three teams vying for that top Aussie spot.
The Waratahs went to Perth a fortnight ago with a 2-4 record and their finals chances slipping away. But a drought-ending win over the Force followed by a nailbiting win over the Stormers on Sunday morning put them right in the thick of the action once more.
Even though their ledger looks mediocre, the Waratahs have just about everything else going for them. They have the best points differential of the Australian teams (+29), the most bonus points (five) and a game in hand, courtesy of two byes in the opening month. With two visiting South African teams to come, they could easily be ensconced in the top Aussie spot before facing a brutal back-to-back assignment of facing the Crusaders and Chiefs.
They still need to win pretty much every game for the rest of the year and that won’t be easy. Their Newlands win proved they can get the job done against the odds and they’ll need to do that again, with matches against the Crusaders in Christchurch and the Chiefs in Sydney to come. They can no longer have a say on any other Australian team’s future directly, with only South African and Kiwi teams to come, including the group’s top two..
Cheetahs (H), Bulls (H), Crusaders (A), Chiefs (H), Sunwolves (A), Hurricanes (H), Blues (A)
They were off to a flying start, undefeated from their first three matches, but since then the Brumbies have fallen away. They’ve been unable to beat a New Zealand side after their opening round demolition job on the Hurricanes and dropped a game against Stormers in New Zealand.
The Brumbies have by far the best draw of the three contenders as they vie to live up to their preseason hype. Four of their finals six matches are in Canberra and just two of their upcoming opponents (the Rebels and the Blues) have a better record than the ACT franchise. Maybe their biggest boost has come off the field, with the ugly dispute between board and outgoing CEO Michael Jones looking to be coming to a close. It’s hard to believe it hasn’t affected players, especially given recent reports that Jones was set to take workplace action against Stephen Moore and Scott Fardy.
Themselves. Things are in the Brumbies’ hands and if they make the most of their run home, especially a match against the Rebels in a fortnight, they can singlehandedly eliminate their competitors from the race. They need to win and score plenty of tries to put themselves in the best possible position.
Bulls (H), Rebels (A), BYE, Sunwolves (H), Reds (H), Blues (A), Force (H)
The Rebels are currently in the box seat, the incumbents at the top of the conference. That spot is in jeopardy, though, with the Melbourne side on a bye this week giving NSW and ACT the chance to snatch the lead off the Rebels.
They’re the ones to chase. They may have just a slim buffer over their rivals but they just have to rely on those competitors to stuff up consistently. They have a chance to rest up ahead of their potentially conference-deciding match up against the Brumbies, a possibly welcome break for the wounded Rebels.
The Rebels lost to the only New Zealand side not in the top six last weekend, a result that would have plenty concerned over their playoff credentials. They will welcome back a handful of injured stars as the year goes on but they’ve got the toughest final run. There’s more travel on the cards for the Rebels, who go to New Zealand twice in their final six games, including a visit to Christchurch back-to-back with a trip to Brisbane to face the Reds.
BYE, Brumbies (H), Chiefs (A), Force (H), Stormers (H), Crusaders (A), Reds (A)