Still hope for Highlanders

Ben Smith bid farewell to fans at Forsyth Barr Stadium on Friday. He still has a chance to play...
Ben Smith bid farewell to fans at Forsyth Barr Stadium on Friday. He still has a chance to play in Invercargill against the Waratahs next Friday and help the Highlanders reach an unlikely play-off spot. Photo: Getty Images
The Highlanders are still in the fight.

They looked to have done their dash in the Super Rugby competition after a third draw of the season, against the Bulls on Friday night at Forsyth Barr Stadium in Dunedin.

But results over the weekend meant the Highlanders can still make the playoffs.

The side, which sits 11th on the table, needs a convincing win over the Waratahs in Invercargill on Friday night and then have a few other results go its way.

It is likely to have All Black fullback Ben Smith back for the game as he recovers from a hamstring injury.

The draws in the season may come back to haunt the Highlanders.

After the 24-24 draw with the Bulls at Forsyth Barr Stadium on Friday night, all playoff hope appeared lost for the Highlanders.

However, after the weekend, when the top four sides all beat sides above the Highlanders, there is still hope for the men from the South.

If the Lions, Sharks or Rebels had won it would had made the playoff task so much harder for the Highlanders.

The team took two points from the draw with the Bulls and sits on 31 points, in 11th position on the ladder.

The Crusaders, Jaguares and Brumbies have each won their respective conferences, while the Hurricanes will also host a quarterfinal, as a clear top four has emerged.

What happens below that is less clear.

The Bulls look safely into the playoffs on 36 points but could still miss out. There are plenty of scenarios and possibilities but for the Highlanders it is simple — go out in the final game of the season in Invercargill on Friday night and win big against the Waratahs.

The Highlanders have made the playoffs every year since 2014.

For the cards to fall the Highlanders’ way, the side must win in Invercargill on Friday night and a bonus point is most definitely desired. It could still squeeze in without a bonus point but that is not likely.

It then needs the game between the Rebels and Chiefs — to be played in Melbourne straight afterwards — to be one-sided. A low-scoring Chiefs win would suffice.

The two South African derbies to be played on Sunday morning [NZ time] then will hopefully go the way of the Bulls and the Stormers, which would knock out the Sharks and the Lions. The losers of those games are likely to dip out.

The Lions sit on 35 points so, even if they lose, could get through with a bonus point or two. The Highlanders could still make it if results go the other way.

The Achilles heel for the Highlanders is the side has only racked up five wins in the 14 games they have played. They are listed as playing 15 games but the match against the Crusaders in March was not played and was classed as a draw.

The other draws — against the Chiefs and last Friday night’s match — means of the top 12 teams, the Highlanders have the lowest number of wins in the season.

When teams are tied, the first tiebreaker is the number of wins recorded by the team over the regular season and that is where the Highlanders will come up short.

The Waratahs have won six games and will also have it all to play for in Invercargill. But it would be a stretch for the Waratahs to make it, even if the side is still mathematically in with a chance. They are due to rest key players Sekope Kepu, Rob Simmons, Michael Hooper, Bernard Foley and Kurtley Beale this week because of Wallabies commitments.

That may be open to negotiation.

The Waratahs lost 35-24 to the Brumbies in Sydney, the Reds beat the Blues 29-28 in Brisbane, the Crusaders smashed the Rebels 66-0 in Christchurch, the Hurricanes beat the Lions 32-17 in Johannesburg, the Stormers beat the Sunwolves 31-18 in Cape Town and the Jaguares beat the Sharks 34-7 in Buenos Aires.

The dream

What the Highlanders want

  • Beat Waratahs with a bonus point
  • Chiefs narrowly win without a bonus point
  • Stormers beat Sharks with Sharks getting no bonus points
  • Bulls beat Lions with Lions getting no bonus points.

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