The Super Rugby season has hit the home stretch and we take a look at what lies ahead in the road to the finals for the teams in the New Zealand conference.
Crusaders (W12, L2 - 54pts)
The reigning champions are in the box seat for a run late into the post-season again in Super Rugby 2018, holding a near-unassailable lead in the New Zealand conference. The Crusaders will round out their campaign with a brace of national derbies against the two teams ranked at the bottom of their conference ladder and will be looking to continue a winning run, which began in Round 6, into the finals.
The club’s performances at AMI Stadium, where they will play their final two regular season games, have been their bread and butter in recent times. The Crusaders are undefeated at home in the last two seasons, winning their last 15 home fixtures on the bounce (including two in the post-season). The last team to visit the Crusaders and win was the Hurricanes in Round 17, 2016.
Victory in either of their remaining two games assures the Crusaders of another season at the top of the Super Rugby ladder heading into the finals.
Hurricanes (W10, L4 - 45pts)
The Hurricanes were in hot contention for a top-of-the-table finish this season prior to a three-game losing streak on which they head into this game on the back of. After opening their campaign with a narrow defeat to the Bulls, the Hurricanes won 10 games on the bounce, but have now failed to score more than 14 points in any of their last three games.
The squad are back at home for Round 18 against the Blues, where they will need to draw on their impressive home form to stave off the Chiefs, Highlanders, and wildcard contenders from the Australian and South African conference to hold on for a home quarter-final. The Hurricanes have won 20 of their last 21 games on home soil, and will need to use that to springboard into a final-round away game against the Chiefs.
The ‘Canes have been the most dominant team of all in the opening quarter of games this season, and quick starts will again be key to victories in the final fortnight for the Wellington club.
The Hurricanes have scored the most tries of any team in the opening quarter of games this season (17) as well as conceded the fewest tries of any team in the same early stages. Their try differential of +13 in the opening quarter of games this season is more than twice as large as the second ranked Crusaders (+6).
Chiefs (W9, L5 - 41pts)
Like the Crusaders, the Chiefs will finish their regular season with a brace of home fixtures. They’ll host the Brumbies and Hurricanes in their final two regular games, and will be looking to steady some wavering form over the last two months which has seen them alternate results in each of their last nine fixtures. They’ll need to steady the ship at home, too - the Chiefs have won just one of their last three home games and will be looking to avoid back-to-back defeats on home turf within the same season for the first time since 2011.
If the Chiefs can come away with a victory against the Brumbies in Round 18, it’s likely that their final-round clash against the Hurricanes could decide who finishes second in the group and clinches an all-important home final in the opening week of the post-season. Recent history suggests that the Chiefs will have the better of this encounter, having lost just one of their last eight games against the Hurricanes at all stages when playing as hosts (W6, D1).
Highlanders (W9, L5 - 40pts)
No longer in contention for the top of the conference, the Highlanders must now contend with red-hot teams from all conferences to secure a finals berth in Super Rugby 2018. The Jaguares, Rebels, and Waratahs are all within striking distance of the Highlanders should they fail to capitalise on their final two games of the regular season against the Crusaders (away) and Rebels (home).
While the away trip to the Crusaders is amongst the toughest journeys in Super Rugby (no visiting team has won there since 2016), the Highlanders could well have their fate within their own hands in their final-round fixture against the Rebels.
It will be the seventh meeting between the Highlanders and Rebels, with six of those previous encounters ending in a Highlanders victory. In fact, the Dunedin side have outscored their Melbourne counterparts 78-15 across their last two meetings.
Blues (W4, L10 - 22pts)
Now playing for pride, the Blues have arguably the toughest final fortnight of the season of any team in the competition with visits to both the Hurricanes and Crusaders in order for the Auckland club. The Blues will be hoping to capitalise on a sturdy 39-16 win against the Reds in their last start by notching consecutive wins for the first time since Round 12, 2017 but will face an uphill battle.
The Blues have taken just a draw from their last 17 New Zealand derbies (L16), and haven’t won against either the Hurricanes or Crusaders since 2014 - a season in which they defeated both.
The Ioane brothers have again been a shining light for the Blues in Super Rugby 2018. Akira Ioane (67) has beaten more defenders than any other player in the competition, while brother Rieko has made 24 offloads thus far, a figure only bettered by the Sharks’ Jean-Luc du Preez (31). In fact, Rieko was at his barnstorming best when these two teams last clashed, racking up four clean breaks, beating nine defenders, scoring two tries, and assisting a further two.