Super Rugby Pacific continues with Round 15, which includes some fascinating match-ups as the tournament heads towards its play-offs.
Ahead of the action, Planet Rugby has picked out five talking points to consider this weekend.
The race to be the top try-scorer
With Super Rugby Pacific‘s business end fast approaching, the tournament’s leading try-scorers will be aware that crossing the whitewash will become more difficult now that the knockout weekends are just around the corner.
After 14 rounds of action, the battle to finish at the top of the competition’s try-scoring charts is still being hotly contested, with several players still in the race to finish at the top of the pile.
Ahead of this weekend’s final round of matches in the league phase of the tournament, the Chiefs’ Shaun Stevenson and Mark Telea of the Blues are the in joint top position on 11 tries scored apiece, while the Crusaders’ Leicester Fainga’anuku is the closest of the chasing pack, just one try adrift.
The Fijian Drua’s Iosefo Masi is next best with nine tries, while Zach Kibirige of the Western Force and Hurricanes duo Kini Naholo and Cam Roigard have each scored eight five-pointers.
Reece Hodge to play his 100th match for the Rebels
It will be a momentous occasion for the Wallaby when he takes to the field for the Rebels against the Brumbies in Canberra on Friday, as it will be the 100th time that Hodge plays for the Melbourne-based outfit.
A star utility back, who is capable of playing fly-half, both midfield positions, wing or full-back, Hodge has been selected at inside centre for this encounter after shining in that position in his team’s impressive 52-14 win over the Western Force in Melbourne last week.
🛡️100 for Hodge
Special morning spent with our board members, coaches, players & staff, celebrating Reece Hodge’s stellar career & becoming the first Rebel to play 100 Super Rugby matches for our Club this week.
We’re so proud of you Hodgey & can’t wait for Friday night! 👏🏼 pic.twitter.com/hkGQJMxLOq
— Melbourne Rebels (@MelbourneRebels) May 30, 2023
The 28-year-old surpassed Tom English as the Rebels’ most-capped player in that match and has come a long way since making his debut for the franchise against the Force in Perth in 2016.
The former Australian Schoolboys and U20 representative finished the Rebels’ victory over the Force with a 12-point haul courtesy of six conversions and shone with ball in hand as he gained 65 attacking metres from eight runs, which included a clean break and four defenders beaten. Rebels’ fans will be hoping for a similar performance from the Bayonne-bound star this weekend.
Dalton Papalii makes an earlier than expected return
The Blues captain was set to serve a three-week ban after he was red carded for an illegal hit on Crusaders fly-half Richie Mo’unga in their Round 12 encounter in Christchurch.
However, Papalii has earned time off for good behaviour after he completed a World Rugby coaching intervention programme and has been named to start at number eight when they take on the Highlanders at Eden Park on Friday.
The All Blacks back-row’s reduction in his punishment came after his coaching intervention programme featured a video presentation on lowering his tackle height. World Rugby were so impressed by his video that they decided to knock a week off his suspension but have also vowed to use some of his preventative measures as a tool for other coaching interventions.
The 25-year-old’s return to action will be a boost for the Blues and it will be interesting to see how he adapts to playing at number eight and not in his usual position on the openside flank.
The scramble for play-off places
With this being the final regular-season round of the competition, there will be plenty at stake for several teams as 11 of the tournament’s 12 franchises are still in with a chance of reaching the play-offs.
In the top half of the table, the Chiefs and Crusaders are sitting pretty as the two leading teams in the competition, while the Blues and Brumbies are in third and fourth positions respectively and the Hurricanes sit fifth.
The final round of the season 🏁
— Super Rugby Pacific (@SuperRugby) May 31, 2023
Meanwhile, the Waratahs are in sixth spot and secured of a quarter-final spot, with the Reds and Highlanders occupying the last two play-off positions, but both teams can drop out if they suffer defeats and other results don’t go their way.
This is because the Western Force, Fijian Drua and Melbourne Rebels are all still in with a chance of reaching the play-offs, with the Rebels, who are in 11th place, just three points adrift of the Reds, who occupy seventh spot.
Crusaders hitting their straps at the right time
The defending champions have virtually sewn up second position in the Super Rugby Pacific standings but although they cannot overtake the Chiefs at the top of the table, they have struck form at the right time and will be looking forward to the knockout rounds.
Scott Robertson’s troops face a tricky assignment in Wellington against the Hurricanes, who have a lot to play for, but the men from Christchurch have shown over the years that when they approach the play-offs they usually are at their best.
They are heading into their clash with the Hurricanes on a four-match winning streak – after fine victories against the Force, Blues, Moana Pasifika and Waratahs – with their last defeat registered against the Chiefs in Hamilton in Round 10 on April 29.
There are some similarities between the Crusaders’ current form and last year’s run-in to their victory in the inaugural Super Rugby Pacific tournament.
They finished last year in second position in the standings – behind the Blues – after 15 rounds of the league phase of the tournament and are set to occupy that position again this year, with the only difference being the Chiefs ending above them in the standings and not the Blues.
Robertson and his charges went on to win all their play-off games in 2022 and will be hoping for a similar run of results this year.