Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

Who will make the Super Rugby playoffs?

Waisake Naholo of the Highlanders scores a try against fellow New Zealand side, the Chiefs. Photo / Getty
Waisake Naholo of the Highlanders scores a try against fellow New Zealand side, the Chiefs. Photo / Getty

There's more than a reasonable chance that the four teams who finish with the most competition points will be from New Zealand and yet only one will host a quarter-final.

It is an unusual if not flawed scenario, yet it is the structure which has been imposed in Super Rugby and no amount of campaigning is going to change it. That's why the next five rounds are critical.

It seems likely the maximum four New Zealand teams will make the playoffs, with all five still in contention, although if the Blues lose to the Lions overnight in South Africa, they can all but forget that.

Winning the New Zealand Conference means everything. The value will be enormous, putting the top team firmly in control.

The situation is this: the winner of the New Zealand Conference is likely, given the state of the table, to finish first overall.

That means they will play at home against the lowest qualifier and will keep playing at home for as long as they keep winning.

At the moment, eighth is a battle among the Sharks, Bulls, Waratahs and Blues, but the Lions and Stormers could come into the reckoning if they can't hold on to their current conference-leading spots.

The picture changes remarkably for the rest of the New Zealand teams. With five rounds left, there is still ample room for surprises.

However, based on current form, standings and competition points, there's a reasonably solid framework from which to start seeing the future.

It's forecasting a crazy situation where, say, the Hurricanes could come within a whisker of topping the group yet find themselves seventh on the table and facing a brutal away knockout game - crazy because they will most likely finish with more competition points than three of the other teams who host a quarter-final.

At this stage, the team who finish fourth in New Zealand, and seventh overall, are on track to play the Stormers in Cape Town or Brumbies in Canberra.

The picture won't be any fairer for the teams who finish second and third in the New Zealand Conference. It is almost certain they will have more competition points than the team they play in the knockout round but it won't matter.

With a home quarter-final guaranteed to the four conference winners, the second-placed New Zealand team are on track to finish fifth overall and play the team who finish fourth overall.

Best guess at this stage is that the winner of the South African Conference containing the Lions, Sharks, Kings and Jaguares will finish fourth. From a New Zealand perspective, the opponent doesn't really matter so much. It's the fact they will have to take a long-haul flight to South Africa that will trouble them.

Neither the Sharks nor Lions have looked particularly fearsome, so a quarter-final in the Republic isn't the daunting prospect it once was, but the issue will be the knock-on effect of the travel.

It will be a big ask to win a quarter-final in Africa one week and return to New Zealand or Australia and win a semifinal six or seven days later.

For the New Zealand team who finish third, the scenario will be much the same. They will most likely finish sixth overall and be looking at a trip to South Africa or Australia.

The latter would be preferable in one regard but the Brumbies are arguably the strongest non-New Zealand side in the competition.

Predictions are never wise, but there are certain truths that can be stated in regard to the last five rounds ... namely that the intra-New Zealand Conference games will be the destiny shapers.

Those are the big-swing games where the winner knows they will get the jump on the team they beat.

Given the points situation, the Highlanders could all but bury the Hurricanes' hopes of topping the table if they continue their winning streak and repeat last year's final heroics by winning in Wellington on May 27.

If they do that, then beat the Kings and Jaguares on the road, then their fate will be in their own hands when they meet the Chiefs in Dunedin in the last round on July 16.

For the Chiefs to have as much resting on that last encounter, they must firstly win a tricky encounter against the Waratahs in Sydney and then defeat the Crusaders in Suva after the international break.

That game in Fiji will have huge consequences, too, for the Crusaders who, along with the Hurricanes, have three local derbies left. The Crusaders have lost two of the three they have played so far - the only losses they have suffered in 2016. Even if they win overseas against the Chiefs, they still have to play the Hurricanes on the last weekend.

As for the Hurricanes, they are in do-or-die territory each week now as they face the Highlanders, Blues and Waratahs in Sydney before they head to Christchurch. They have to keep winning to top the pool.

The Blues have to overtake one of their New Zealand rivals to grab a playoff spot, but really need to win tomorrow morning. Even if they don't, they will fancy they can pick up points against the Force and also in the last two rounds when they host the Brumbies and Waratahs. Their chances rely a lot on results elsewhere going their way.

Force (a)
Crusaders (h)
Hurricanes (a)
Brumbies (h)
Waratahs (h)

Rebels (h)
Waratahs (a)
Crusaders (Fiji)
Reds (a)
Highlanders (a)

Highlanders (h)
Blues (h)
Waratahs (a)
Crusaders (a)

Waratahs (h)
Blues (a)
Chiefs (Fiji)
Rebels (h)
Hurricanes (h)

Hurricanes (a)
Kings (a)
Jaguares (a)
Chiefs (h)

The playoffs explained
Eight teams advance to the playoffs.
The four conference winners will be joined by the next-best team from the two African conferences as well as the next best three teams from the Australasian conferences.
The four conference winners will all host a quarter-final.
The higher-placed teams will retain home advantage throughout the playoffs.

- NZ Herald

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