SA sides remain in Super Rugby playoff contention going into final week
There could be as many as four SA sides in the Super Rugby playoffs and while the travel might make that a poisoned chalice after a long season, Rassie Erasmus is keen for his Springboks to play on for as long as possible.
Nine teams will vie for four remaining playoff spots in the final round of matches and it looks likely a minimum of three SA teams will qualify with all facing away quarterfinals in New Zealand, Australia or Argentina.
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The Jaguares have already sealed top spot in the SA Conference for the first time and will have a home quarterfinal, but the four other teams in the pool have it all to play for this Saturday.
The Bulls host the Lions at Loftus Versfeld, where the winner will be assured of a playoff place, while a losing bonus point could also seal a spot for the vanquished. Before that, the Stormers host the Sharks in another decisive clash with the losers having the lifeline of a knockout stage spot if they get a bonus point and other results go their way.
In a season in which the final four wildcard quarterfinalists will be decided by fine margins, just how important the Bulls’ draw with the Highlanders on Friday will prove to be will only be known in the final reckoning.
The Pretoria-based team drew criticism for flying Handre Pollard out to Dunedin for the game after he was rested in SA, only for the Springbok flyhalf to play a leading role in earning them a share of the spoils.
Bok coach Erasmus was happy for Pollard to travel, and said his concern at this stage of the season was ensuring key players got enough game time ahead of the Rugby Championship.
“The Bulls needed him to improve their chances of staying in the competition. It also suits our purposes in terms of Handre’s match fitness,” Erasmus said. “If the Bulls get knocked out of the tournament, then he won’t play for six weeks leading up to the Rugby Championship. We want guys like Handre to be sharp going into that tournament.”
The flipside of that argument is that key internationals Siya Kolisi, Warren Whiteley, Eben Etzebeth, Lood de Jager, Pieter-Steph du Toit and Damian Willemse have already been ruled out of the remainder of the Super Rugby season by injury. Erasmus will be loath to lose any more in the months leading up to the World Cup in Japan.