Waratahs coast while others sweat on playoffs
Three months ago a foul-mouthed eruption at a South African cameraman had Waratahs coach Michael Cheika wondering if Sanzar were going to rub out his coaching career.
Now Cheika is the envy of all other Super Rugby coaches, save Sharks mentor Jake White.
These days Cheika sleeps easy, knowing his top-placed Waratahs (on 48 points) are one of only two teams - White's Sharks (45) being the other - guaranteed a finals spot inside the top-six qualifying bracket, and that all the pressure is on a chasing pack containing the Crusaders (42), Highlanders (42), Hurricanes (41), Brumbies (40), Force (36), Blues (36) and Chiefs (36).
Forget the Bulls, Stormers, Reds, Lions, Rebels and Cheetahs because they are toast.
The Force, Blues and Chiefs have the most to lose in this weekend's penultimate round-robin games.
But so tight is the leaderboard that even if they get beaten their chances may not be obliterated. That's because the sixth-placed Brumbies have the bye and cannot add more points to their account.
To suffer a defeat would be a major blow for the Force, Blues and Chiefs, but not securing a losing bonus point (or potentially two) would be catastrophic.
If the Waratahs remain unbeaten in their remaining fixtures against the Highlanders and Reds, they will collect the minor premiership and host a home semifinal in Sydney - and the final if they survive.
That should soothe the fiery Cheika, who copped a six-month suspended ban and was ordered to pay Sanzar costs of $6000 for repeatedly telling a TV cameraman to "f... off" during a match against the Sharks in Durban in late March.
The Sharks are guaranteed to finish top of the African conference, and away wins over the Cheetahs and Stormers would see them secure a vital top-two berth and home advantage in one semifinal.
A single victory against the Blues and Highlanders, both in Christchurch, is likely to ensure the Crusaders again qualify, but they have loftier aims.
Finishing in the top two, not just at the top of the New Zealand conference, remains their goal. Past experiences, when forced to travel for three semis and a final since the format was extended to 15 teams in 2011, prove how difficult it is to win a title if you finish in the bottom four and have to play in the "quarterfinals".
The Highlanders have the most difficult run home, against the Waratahs and Crusaders (both away), and there is a real risk their fairytale resurgence this season will be demolished by two highly motivated sides.
Last weekend's 16-9 win over the Crusaders has given Hurricanes' fans optimism coach Mark Hammett can mark his exit to Cardiff with a crack at the title. They will need luck on their side because, like the Brumbies, the Hurricanes have just one match left because of the bye.
Defending champions the Chiefs require a minor miracle.
Even bonus-point victories over the Hurricanes and Blues may not be enough for them to secure a three-peat due to their weak win-loss ratio.