- By Kevin McCarthy
Say what you like about the convoluted Super Rugby system, and yes, no one will mourn its passing, but the competition is just that with three rounds to go.
Looking of course at the Hurricanes, there is much to play for and be nervous about in the next few weeks – even though we’re the second best or fourth best team in the comp.
Further down the table, where there’s a cluster of teams in the low 30 point range, there are a substantial number who still have play-off aspirations.
Toss in the quarter finals draw and whether you draw the poison cup of extensive overseas travel, then there is still plenty to keep most teams and their fans engaged.
Looking back at the Hurricanes, and the spanking two weekends ago by the Jaguares looms very large now. The result propelled the Jaguares into box seat in the South African conference, while the team the Hurricanes face this weekend – the Sharks – are next best placed to challenge for the conference title.
The Jaguares next play the Reds away, a game you would fancy they won’t drop now. That should be enough. They only then have to beat the Sunwolves in the final round, and secure the conference title.
That means the other threats to the Hurricanes holding onto fourth spot are themselves – or the Sharks or the Bulls, or the Rebels or the Brumbies, all of whom sit at around 33 or 32 points. Yes there are other teams who are on 30 who could sneak through, but it is of course less likely.
Of the South African sides, the Sharks will put the heat on us if they win this weekend. But if the Canes can do the job over there, then that will see off the Sharks as a threat to fourth spot.
That would leave the Bulls and possibly the Lions as still a danger. But the Bulls are playing the Blues and the Highlanders away, and a double seems unlikely for them. The Lions don’t seem the force of previous years, and of course the Canes face them as a second leg of their African safari.
The challenge from the Australian conference is largely around the Brumbies and Rebels and their run-in is mostly derby games – with the Waratahs potentially the spoilers for either side’s aspirations.
Incidentally, if you are wondering about any NZ challenges to the Canes in fourth spot, then there are none. The Landers are 11 points back and have played an extra game.
I mentioned earlier that the other danger to the Canes was themselves. If they manage to come away winless or pointless from South Africa, they would still have the last game at home against the Blues. Anyway, if the side implodes so badly as to lose the next three on the trot, then that would be both amazing and extremely demoralising.
So the simplest solution is to win this weekend to make fourth spot pretty secure, and win again to make it a certainty. So our fate is in our hands, and there’s no reason to coast. Not a bad setup as we head to the finals.
Club captain Dane Coles will return to the Hurricanes playing squad for their round 16 Investec Super Rugby match against the Sharks in Durban.
Coles has been named on the bench along with experienced loose forward Gareth Evans, the pair returning after being sidelined for an extended period due to calf injuries.
Leading Hurricanes points scorer Beauden Barrett has been named to start at first five-eighth after he missed the side’s last match against the Jaguares.
Kick-off at Kings Park is 1.05am, Sunday (NZ time).
The Hurricanes squad to face the Sharks is:
15 Jordie Barrett
14 Wes Goosen
13 Matt Proctor
12 Ngani Laumape
11 Ben Lam
10 Beauden Barrett
9 TJ Perenara (c)
8 Reed Prinsep
7 Ardie Savea
6 Vaea Fifita
5 Kane Le’aupepe
4 James Blackwell
3 Jeff To’omaga-Allen
2 Asafo Aumua
1 Toby Smith
16 Dane Coles
17 Fraser Armstrong
18 Ross Geldenhuys
19 Isaia Walker-Leawere
20 Du’Plessis Kirifi
21 Gareth Evans
22 Richard Judd
23 James Marshall