With only three rounds remaining, the race is now truly on – not only for a place in the quarterfinals but also to top the three conferences in the Super Rugby competition to ensure a home quarterfinal.
The main contenders realise that a single slip-up could cost them dearly.
Of course, the New Zealand conference has for all practical purposes been won. The Crusaders, on 53 log points, can mathematically still be caught, but that will take a horrendous three unforeseen results in their last matches.
New Zealand’s second-placed Hurricanes are in the same situation in the second place in this conference that will provide them with a fourth place on the overall standings.
That also ensures a home quarterfinal.
♦ But in South Africa (and to a lesser extent Australia) there is still much arm-wrestling to make it to the home quarterfinals and even the remaining five quarterfinal places.
In this season where all five the South African franchises are within six points of one another with only three matches to play, literally any one of the five sides (some with mathematical luck!) still have a chance of topping the conference or at least making it to the quarterfinal play-offs.
The Sharks, still reasonably well-placed to top the SA Conference, have two away local derbies to negotiate and win. This weekend they come up against the second best team in the Super Competition when the Hurricanes play their first match in South Africa with their next a week later against the Lions at Ellis Park.
After the match against the Hurricanes must beat the Stormers at Newlands and then the Jaguares in Buenos Aires to ensure they have a home quarterfinal as winner of the SA Conference.
On Saturday’s showing against the Lions in Durban, who gave the home side two long-distance intercept tries on a platter after the Lions had controlled most facets of the game, the Sharks as conference leaders seem no more than an outside possibility at best and anything but a probability.
The Bulls, as Nick Mallett suggests, have probably run their race after losing to the Brumbies on Saturday.
On paper, the Bulls have the forwards, and a good backline – even without the injured Handré Pollard – to win against the Blues and then the Highlanders. However, their inability to use their opportunities through unstructured running and often wild passing and especially their poor defence will deny them a home play-off or, for that matter, any quarterfinal berth.
The Lions, who will again be without Warren Whiteley who after his run of injuries is now laid low by kidney stones, play the Stormers at home this weekend.
They the Lions face the Hurricanes at Ellis Park before they must travel to Loftus for their last match, the derby against the Bulls.
The Lions have not yet won a match against South African opposition this year. It that continues, they are out of the quarterfinals.
Can the Stormers keep up their form of the recent two matches and do so even with the injuries reported from their Newlands den? It is still unclear whether captain Siya Kolisi or Pieter-Steph du Toit will be in the side to face the Lions at Ellis Park.
A decision on their availability will be taken on Thursday. There is especially uncertainty about whether Du Toit, with a shoulder problem that has been troubling him for some weeks, will be fit.
Eben Etzebeth will however play. He has recovered from the flu that made him withdraw from the match against the Highlanders last weekend.
Should he Stormers pull off a win at Ellis Park, the Lions will probably be out of the quarterfinals and the Capetonians on a good path to make it there.
Their other two matches are the easy one against the Sunwolves and the derby against the Sharks, which could be the determining match for the two South African sides.
The Sharks must travel to Cape Town after returning from Buenos Aires which could give the Stormers more than just the home advantage.
The Jaguares, who play the Reds in Brisbane this weekend, remain favourites to win the SA Conference. They should beat the lowly Reds, and hereafter have the Sharks and Sunwolves to beat, both in Argentina.
They should win both these matches to top the conference.
It looks very much like a two-horse race with the Brumbies (34) a single point ahead of the Melbourne Rebels (33) and he Waratahs seven points further adrift.
The Brumbies must still play the Sunwolves in Tokyo and the derby against the Waratahs, also away. Then they have a second derby in their last match against the Reds. Easy? No! The Aussies are as hyped about their derbies as the South African sides.
The rebels, however, have a more daunting task. After an away match against the Waratahs, they are also away to Crusaders in Christchurch and complete their fixtures at home against the Chiefs.
The conference logs obtained from Sanzaar are below (team, played, won, drew, lost points difference, log points)