Three Points
Could the bye unsettle the high-flying Hurricanes?
Brett McKay
April 15, 2015
Ma'a Nonu is enjoying life in the Hurricanes' backline © Getty Images

Nine rounds of the Super Rugby season done, and that means we are officially on the downhill stretch. Curiously, four teams - the Highlanders, Waratahs, Hurricanes, and Rebels - have had both byes before the halfway point, while two others - the Sharks and Lions - are yet to have their first. More on byes in a moment, too.

And after promising - or was that hoping for? - some sanity would return to the competition table this round, it proved to be another tipsters nightmare. Only the gambling kind amongst my Scrum colleagues prepared to back the Blues and Cheetahs had registered any points before the South African leg of the round kicked off.

Regardless, here were a few things that stood out in Round 9.

Curse of the bye

Every week we hear it - 'teams always struggle coming back from the bye'. But is it true, or is it a Super Rugby version of an urban myth?

Well, in the first part of the season, it didn't hold much water at all. Seven teams had the bye over the first five rounds, and between them, won 10 of the 14 games they played in the two weeks following the bye. Of the losses, the Highlanders dropped their first game after the bye, while the Cheetahs, Waratahs, and Rebels won the first game back and lost the second.

From Round 6 onwards, though, it's a different story.

The Blues, Reds, and Stormers had the bye in Round 6, and all lost their next two games. The Brumbies had the bye in Round 7, and won their first game back, but lost last week in Auckland in their second.

The Force and Waratahs both lost first up after their Round 8 bye, while the Highlanders were super impressive in beating the Crusaders in Christchurch.

So while it might all be coincidental, now that teams are 'into their season' and have their structures in place, teams coming back from the bye are finding the going harder - and not just the first game back. Since Round 6, every team coming off the bye has lost either their first or second game back.

What does it mean going into Round 10 this weekend?

It's been two weeks since the Hurricanes held off the Stormers © Getty Images

Well, it means you should give some consideration in tipping the Blues to beat the Highlanders in Dunedin.

It also means the Hurricanes might not be so certain against the Waratahs, the Chiefs are in for a tough one in Christchurch against the Crusaders (even more so with the Crusaders dropping one at home last week), and the Rebels might similarly battle in Canberra against the Brumbies.

This is hardly exact science, of course, and I'm not going to tell you you have to do it (you've surely seen my tipping this season anyway). But it is something to keep an eye on over the run home.

Worst case scenario for Australian conference

The good news for Australian teams in Round 9 was that at least the Rebels didn't lose; the bad news is that the bye hasn't earned points for a few seasons now.

So four games for four losses it was for the Australian conference, and with the Waratahs losing to the Stormers in Sydney sending them down to tenth overall, Australian sides now occupy four of the bottom six spots on the table.

Don't bother firing up the 'weakest conference' bandwagon now, it's been purring along for weeks already. Bill Pulver's prediction/desperate hope that Australia would supply three finalists in 2015 is looking even more light-hearted than he could possibly have meant.

At least there will be one Australian win in Round 10 - unless the Brumbies and Rebels are deadlocked at fulltime, of course. But the other three teams all face tough games: the Waratahs play the competition-leading and still undefeated Hurricanes in Wellington; the Force host the wet-sail hoisting Stormers, while the Reds face the Cheetahs in Bloemfontein, buoyed by their win in Perth on the way home.

© Getty Images

At the start of the season, you might have pencilled in three Australian wins in those games, but you'd be an optimistic tipster if you went that way now.

And consider this as a worst case scenario: if the Rebels knocked off the Brumbies, and the Crusaders and Highlanders both won, there could easily be four New Zealand teams with better records than the Australian conference leader.

A finals storm brewing from Newlands

I don't mind admitting that at the start of the year I didn't give the Stormers much hope. I think I even had them finishing fourth in the South African conference - not because I thought the Lions would be great, for the record, but rather I just wasn't convinced they had been any major improvement in the Stormers from their 11th place finish last year. I'm pretty sure I even concluded, "not even with someone else's money."

Well, here comes the backflip: I think they can not only make the finals, they're now a better than even chance of topping the conference. Let me explain.

Though the Lions are on a winning streak I can't ever recall emanating from Ellis Park, they just lack that attacking polish to really put teams away. I've heard them referred to as the 2015 equivalent of the 2014 Western Force, and that's fair in both comparison and likely finale.

The Cheetahs are hot and cold, but they always have been. They'll surprise a few teams over the next nine rounds, but they won't be threatening the finals. And the Sharks are just plain cold. Like the Lions, they also have both byes to come in the next nine rounds, and they have to finally leave South Africa, having pretty much butchered one of the kinder Super Rugby season fixtures going this season.

Schalk Burger has been in devastating form for the Stormers © Getty Images

The Stormers, on the other hand, have a run home that looks thus: Force (Away), Bulls, Cheetahs (A), Brumbies, BYE, Rebels, Cheetahs, Lions, Sharks (A).

In their current vein of form, it's not inconceivable that they can win at least six of those remaining eight games, which would give them at least eleven wins and a spot in the finals.

Their major competition in the conference, I think, is the Bulls. Their draw going forward is: Sharks (A), Stormers (A), Lions, BYE, Blues (A), Chiefs (A), Brumbies (A), Rebels (A), Cheetahs.

Even if they won every game in South Africa from here on, they would still need to win two of the four games on tour to get to 11 wins; more if they happen to get the Sharks on a good day in Durban, and lose to the Stormers at Newlands.

The Bulls had a similarly kind draw to the Sharks, and haven't really capitalised as I expected they would. Their run home now looks harder than that of the Stormers, for mine, and I think this put the boys from the Cape in the box seat to top the log.

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd

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