Final round playoff hopes hang in balance for Tier One nation leagues

Final round playoff hopes hang in balance for Tier One leagues
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Over two hemispheres, final round playoff hopes hang in the balance for leading Tier One nation leagues of Premiership Rugby, French Top14, and Super Rugby Pacific.

With the leading sides all but set, it is now up to those still in the fight to make the semi-finals of the 2021/22 Premiership and French Top14, and complete the Top eight places in the 2022 Super Rugby Pacific.

The last round for Southern hemisphere teams will be fulfilled this weekend, while the Premiership plays out rounds 25 and 26. Just as critical to settle that league’s playoff seedings, simultaneously the two Northern Hemisphere competitions end their regular seasons by Sunday June 5.

Particular outcomes will influence the final make-up of the knockout stages of all involved – across the globe, it could not be scripted any better. Fantastically balanced to retain interest in places four through to eight (and that does not occur in every season).

Describing these encounters, Last Word on Rugby will outline which games are fascinating to await, and which have the possibility to change the make-up of the last few games of the year. The most important weeks for a handful – they find themselves in the unsteady position where all their final round playoff hopes hang in the balance.

That is not to say that anything will change from how the below standings currently sit. There is no recipe for a Fairytale finish. Yet for organizers; who often have to create contingencies that are ‘up in the air’ until the conclusion of weekends like this, they wouldn’t have it any other way. Neither would the fans in general. Apart from those whose teams might end up losing a playoff berth.

Those supporters’ faith will be tested this weekend, from Friday night [May 27] until Sunday June 5.

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They are not alone. The recent outcome of the EPL season has taught sports fans around the globe just how spectacular the conclusion can be!

Final round playoff hopes hang in balance for Tier One leagues

Up in the Northern Hemisphere, the English rugby clubs are reaching the crescendo of their calendar. In a 13-team competition, all sides play the other twice to equal 24 games a piece.

These final rounds are going to determine the all-important fourth position. Already having the top seeds earned, Leicester and Saracens will complete their own assignments with an eye on the results of others.

The final round especially is very interesting and it’s all set on a couple of results; if Northampton can beat Newcastle at home on June 4, to claim the fourth and final spot. If they don’t beat Newcastle, and Gloucester beat Saracens at home that same Saturday, then it would be Gloucester in the playoffs instead of Northampton. Simple.

Though in sport, nothing is ever so simplistic.

In the Northern Hemisphere, consideration is also on the European Professional Club Rugby participation. That entails the top eight placed sides qualifying for the two-tiered leagues of the Champions Cup and Challenge Cup competitions. And here is where the final round playoff hopes of London Irish and Wasps are inter-linked with EPCR hopes too. That is that current standings have the Exiles in eight spot – but not comfortable [yet].

The task is difficult enough for the final four, so if Wasps’ have any hope of taking away London Irish’s position in Europe, they must do the unthinkable….defeat Leicester. And while not impossible, to do so as the Tigers are aiming to peak at the ‘pointy end’ of the season, is a huge task. But their fans can still live with the hope that if they play the game of the season, their Wasps club could be a part of the Challenge Cup pool draw in 2022/23.

In a twist of fortune, a Wasps win might also hand Saracens the top seeding in the semifinals [as Leicester only hold a three point advantage] which would be an unparalleled turnaround from being dumped out of the Premiership for salary cap breaches, to [possibly] finishing in top position if the Leicester men let themselves down before the playoffs even begin.

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Downunder, things are about to reach their own apex this weekend, with Round 14 games able to seal the quarter-final places over the Australian and New Zealand-based franchises. Only the one side has an assured finish spot secured, with the table-topping Blues unable to be overtaken in this league.

The tournament format is designed to incorporate a quarterfinal, so meaning that all three competitions do in fact reach their Grand Finals at the same time.

Super Rugby Pacific is a shorter competition, yet it is just as competitive and even if the Omicron wave took away a good portion of the trans-Tasman nature of the season, most teams have seen matches in both countries, as well as several games played in Fiji. This includes the final round match for the Fijian Drua, who host the Chiefs in Lautoka on Saturday.

Places are settled for positions one-to-seven. Only the eighth place is ‘up for grabs’ as the Highlanders hope to secure the final berth in the playoffs. Though after last week’s loss to the NSW Waratahs, there is a glimmer of hope for the ninth-placed Western Force. They may be able to scramble a home win over the Hurricanes, and with the assistance from their conference partners the Melbourne Rebels, see a way of overtaking the Dunedin side and making it an impressive four vs four NZ/Aussie franchises in the final eight.

It seemed to be an unthinkable act, until the Auckland Blues made an incredible 14 positional changes in their traveling squad to Perth. Removing so many of their frontline men could be seen in one of two ways. Firstly, it is an act of self-preservation. To retain their core strength in resting players like Beauden Barrett, Stephen Perofeta, Dalton Papalii and others. Yet in another way, it is both an insult to their opposition and a risk to their stellar 12-game winning streak. So whichever strategy Leon MacDonald has opted for, his inexperienced side will run out in Sydney against the ‘Tahs carrying more than just a simple win to affirm.

Could that blow up in the faces of the Blues’ coaching staff? Possibly, and a confident Waratahs group will want to show their home crowd that the win over the Crusaders a few weeks ago, was not just a miracle.

Through the field of already qualified sides, the ACT Brumbies must want to end their regulation season on improving form. A pair of losses to higher placed teams could be used as motivation to see the below fans cheering a victory again. But if the Crusaders win (as is predicted widely), they will still be the third qualifier and hold a home QF match that might be against a fellow Australian side. Yet sadly, they have lost their pathway to a home semi-final or Grand Final berth through their own deeds.

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As for the others, building momentum is their key motivation. For the Hurricanes, it is all-important that they defeat the Force and then wish for the Drua to provide Fijian fans with the perfect end to a debut season that promised so much more. It would be miraculous though the power of the joyous Pacific nation’s supporters could be a huge boost missing [when they played on the Gold Coast]. Meanwhile, the Reds will just hope that their visit to Christchurch is no massacre – respect needs to be earned here. And head coach Brad Thorn would dearly like his men to earn crucial points to leap above the ‘Tahs placing – thus avoid a second straight match against the Crusaders at home.

Again, over the two leagues on opposing ends of the globe, the final round is no gimme. The topsides need to still win to be assured of both seedings, as well as entering the knockout rounds with good momentum. And for the chasers, well the benefits of aiming to peak with final-round wins can only bring further rewards in the weeks following the regulation draw being completed.

As the saying goes “there is much still to play for”.

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Meanwhile, the French Top14 enjoys it’s last week of hiatus, with the Heineken Champions Cup and Challenge Cup finals being played in Marseille, those sides will be ready to return to finalize the Top14 semi-finals places. Then they complete the last domestic round, ahead of that nation’s eagerly anticipated championship. And in the Celtic league, with its expansion now including South African franchises, they will enter quarter-finals playoffs from Ireland and for the first time, South Africa.

So over the course of June, fans across the globe will enjoy some first-class match-ups in the leading Tier One nations, This is all before the July International test window opens, and the elite levels of International competition and traditional rivalries can again take center stage.

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