MELBOURNE (Reuters) - The Super Rugby playoffs race reaches a crescendo in the final round as eight teams battle for four remaining wildcard slots and a place in the quarter-finals.
The competition’s tightest season in years has thrown up a slew of intriguing scenarios, including the possibility of all five teams in the South African conference reaching the postseason for the first time.
Argentina’s Jaguares have already wrapped up an automatic spot and a home quarter-final as the conference winners and they could be joined by the Bulls, Lions, Stormers and Sharks depending on how other results pan out.
The double-defending champion Canterbury Crusaders will rest easy with a bye this weekend having sewn up the New Zealand conference and top seeding weeks ago.
They have been joined in the last eight by Australian conference winners the ACT Brumbies and New Zealand’s Wellington Hurricanes, who claimed the first of the five wildcard slots.
For the remaining contenders, Friday’s opening matches will cut through some of the murk but the results may only guarantee the winners a nervous wait.
It starts with the Otago Highlanders hosting the New South Wales Waratahs, a virtual elimination final between the 11th and 12th-placed sides, in Invercargill. Both need a bonus point win and for subsequent results to fall their way to snatch a wildcard.
At home against a Waratahs (30 points) team shorn of five resting Wallabies players, the Highlanders (31) have the better chance of survival.
In the second match on Friday, the Melbourne Rebels (34), humiliated 66-0 at the Crusaders last week, can seal their maiden playoffs campaign with a home win over the Waikato Chiefs (31) while eliminating their New Zealand opponents.
The Chiefs need a bonus-point win to guarantee a ticket to the postseason but they could still sneak in with a regulation victory should neither the Waratahs nor the Highlanders get a bonus-point win.
The quarter-final picture will not be clear, however, until the South African teams play each other on Saturday.
The Bulls (36) host the Lions (35) in Pretoria, with the victor to seal a quarter-final in Wellington.
Defeat for the Lions could mean missing out on the playoffs altogether if the Rebels win or the Chiefs and Highlanders claim bonus-point wins.
In the earlier South Africa match, the Stormers (34) host the Sharks (33) in Cape Town. A win for either side will book their playoffs ticket while eliminating their opponents, a draw might be enough to see them both through.
Bonus points, for teams that score three or more tries than their opponents or lose their matches by seven or less points, could prove decisive through the weekend, and fans will hope to see a high-scoring affair or two.
“This is a do-or-die weekend, it is exactly that,” said Stormers fullback Dillyn Leyds.
“But it is quite nice. Hopefully it puts us in the play-off mindset.”
Editing by Peter Rutherford