The penultimate round of the 2012 Super Rugby season concluded with more than one title contender making an imperious statement as we countdown to the Super Rugby Finals Series and the eventual crowning of the seventeenth champion.
Despite the fact we only have one round left to play, there are still eight teams left in contention, but the current top six will be content with the knowledge that their destiny is in their own hands.
The defending champion Reds, and the surprise packet of the New Zealand Conference in the Hurricanes, need compelling victories and other results to go their way if they are to reach the knockout stages of the season.
The Chiefs, anointed New Zealand Conference champions last week with a win over the Highlanders, came crashing back to earth in front of their home crowd against a rampant Crusaders forward pack wanting to prove a point. Established All Blacks like Richie McCaw, Kieran Read and Owen Franks were immense, while the young test locking combination of Sam Whitelock and Luke Romano contributed to what was a shaky Chiefs set piece.
Of all the teams in Super Rugby, no franchise is as well versed as to the required intensity of rugby at this stage of the season as the Crusaders, and the 28-21 win ensured that a victory over the Force in Round 18 will lock up fourth spot on the table and a home Super Rugby Qualifying Final.
The Chiefs loss won’t dislodge them from the top two, but the men from the Waikato now run the risk of being overtaken by the Stormers in the last week of the regular season.
What makes the equation more delicious is the fact that the Chiefs head to New Zealand’s capital this weekend, where the Hurricanes will play in what coach Mark Hammett describes as a final – for victory will give his team a chance of making the Super Rugby Finals Series.
The Reds kept their chances alive with a 19-13 win over the Highlanders, with the defeat ending the Otago based franchise’s season as they take a Round 18 bye. The reigning champions are the hottest team in Super Rugby, winning five straight matches, and will now suit up for a blockbuster against great rivals the Waratahs at Suncorp Stadium in Brisbane, where only victory will be good enough to enable Queensland to keep dreaming of back-to-back titles.
The Sharks also needed victory to keep their Super Rugby Finals Series chances alive, and did so with an emphatic 32-10 win over the three-time champion Bulls, which means the two South African heavyweights round out the top six.
Victory for the Stormers, combined with a loss for the Chiefs (or a win for the Chiefs but a bonus point win for the South Africans), will see the Cape Town based side lock up top spot – while wins for the Bulls and Sharks will see three franchises from the Republic in the Super Rugby Finals Series.
Considering the Stormers, Bulls and Sharks play the Rebels, Lions and Cheetahs respectively in their home fortresses; it could be a breakthrough year for the South Africans.
The Blues signed off their season at Eden Park with a 32-9 win over the Force, and while victory against the Brumbies in Canberra might give Pat Lam’s troops back-to-back wins for the first time in 2012 – ironically a Blues loss will actually help the Crusaders and Hurricanes chances of reaching the Super Rugby Finals Series.
The Brumbies continued their fairy-tale season with a hard fought 19-15 win in Sydney, their first in Australia’s largest city in a decade, and need just one competition point to secure the Australian Conference.
While the Stormers managed to take a 13-6 win over the Cheetahs in the City of Roses, it was arguably the least impressive performance of a title contender over the weekend, with the South African Conference champions the only team not to register a four-try bonus point so far this season.
Meanwhile a match between two teams out of contention, the Lions and the Rebels, produced the most tries of the round, with the South Africans winning 37-32 in an eight try thriller.