Three Australian sides sitting pretty
April 20, 2014
Sias Ebersohn (r) and his Force team-mates remain in the top six despite losing to the Rebels © Getty Images
Halfway through the competition and three Australian teams are positioned to qualify for the Super Rugby finals for the first time in history.
The Brumbies in 2004 and Queensland Reds in 2011 are the only Australian sides in the past decade to have won a Super Rugby championship, but now the New South Wales Waratahs and Western Force are threatening to challenge for maiden titles after climbing into play-off contention.
Runners-up last year to New Zealand's Chiefs, the Brumbies (25 points) are second overall in the standings and clinging to a one-point lead over NSW in the hotly-contested Australian conference following the Waratahs' gritty 19-12 win over the Bulls on Saturday night. The Waratahs (24) leapfrogged the fifth-placed Force (23) into fourth with the Perth-based outfit's 22-16 loss to the Melbourne Rebels earlier in round 10.
The Rebels (16) and Reds (16) are each six points adrift of the top six but not completely without hope of pushing for the play-offs, with both teams set for a series of "eight-point" derbies over the final eight rounds of the home-and-away season. The Rebels have four derbies to come, including two showdowns with the Reds, presenting the underdogs with a big opportunity to climb the Australian conference ladder if they're good enough.
The Waratahs' hosting of the Brumbies in the penultimate round could decide conference honours, while the Force's home game against the Reds the following week may well determine if Australia boasts three finalists for the first time.
NSW coach Michael Cheika has been eyeing a top-two finals spot since the pre-season and believes the Waratahs are on course after beating the Bulls.
"We don't have a buffer, but we're on track," Cheika said. "We're five (wins) and three (losses), we've got a few bonus points, we've got a (win) away from home in our pocket, we've (won) all our home games."
While three Australian teams are sitting pretty at the halfway point, South African sides, with the exception of the table-topping Sharks, are struggling to make an impact.
The Sharks (31) shot six points clear of the second-placed Brumbies with their 19-8 derby win over the Cheetahs in Durban and the Chiefs' 18-17 home loss to the Crusaders in Hamilton earlier on Saturday. The Chiefs (26) remain third, and top of the New Zealand conference, with the Crusaders (22) nudging above the Hurricanes (20) into the top six. The Sharks are the only South African team in the top half of the table, with the Bulls, Lions, Stormers and Cheetahs all languishing.