As we enter the midway point of the season the Super Rugby ladder is beginning to take shape, while the coronoavirus continues to make an impact on the competition with a second double-header to take place.
Here are some of the key discussion points from the week in rugby.
WHO HAS MOST IMPRESSED YOU SO FAR THIS SUPER RUGBY SEASON?
Sam Bruce: This won't come as any great scoop given they're sitting pretty at the top of the ladder, but I love the way the Sharks are playing this season. The four-time runners-up have a bunch of big, mobile ball-carriers; they have a smart halves pairing in Louis Schreuder and Curwin Bosch who have enough experience to handle any situation; and they have an array of quality finishers out on the flanks. Watching the first half of their game against the Jaguares last week, you could have expected them to be a tad sluggish out of the blocks given they had returned to South Africa after four weeks on the road. But the Sharks instead played some breath-taking attacking rugby with No. 8 Sikhumbuzo Notshe right in the thick of it. With only a roadtrip to Buenos Aires to come in Round 15 outside of South Africa, I can see them winning as many as seven of their remaining games and picking up at least three bonus points along the way, which would bring them to 51 points. That would have been good enough for second last year, and with the Kiwi teams likely to cannibalise each other a bit more this season, it might well be enough for top spot overall. This is the Sharks' year.
Brittany Mitchell: Perennial New Zealand conference cellar-dwellers, the Blues, have really stepped up in 2020, sitting with only two losses from six matches and just one point behind the Chiefs and Crusaders on the conference table. Their opening round loss to the Chiefs and R3 hammering by the Crusaders suggested a season of same-same for the Auckland based franchise, but with three wins on the trot including their double in South Africa, the Blues have impressed me the most. Travelling South Africa is always difficult, but to come home with two big wins, including a 33-14 win over the Stormers in Cape Town, is huge. To then back it up with a 24-15 win over the Hurricanes at the Cake Tin - their first win over the Canes in nine matches - was just what they needed. I was skeptical of their ability to take on their Kiwi opposition last week and my tips paid the price, but I've since jumped on the blue bandwagon. They're playing smarter, are closing out matches and their set-piece is looking strong. And All Blacks star Beauden Barrett is still to grace the field. Hosting the Lions this weekend, the Blues should make it four in a row before they host the Brumbies. The back-end of their season won't be easy -- five of their remaining ten matches are against conference rivals -- but if they continue their upward trend, a Super Rugby playoff spot looks certain.
WHO DO YOU EXPECT TO CLIMB UP THE LADDER THROUGH THE MIDDLE PART OF THE SEASON?
SB: Waiting for the Reds to finally deliver on their potential might be a good way to go grey; or bald; or both; early, but I'm confident Saturday's game against the Bulls is the match that kickstarts their season. Let's face facts, they should have beaten the defending champion Crusaders last week and the same could probably be said for both the Lions and Brumbies matches as well. Following the Bulls game this Saturday, the Reds face the Brumbies at home, followed by the Sunwolves -- which will now likely be in either Australia or NZ given the coronavirus -- and then the Rebels [home] and the Waratahs [away]. I can see them winning four of those games with bonus points in two matches, which would bring them to 26 points. That would also bring the Reds back to 5-6 on the season and have them in playoff contention ahead of their final five games. The Reds have shown they're capable of playing some great rugby and while there are some concerns over both their lineout and scrum this year - not to mention their goal-kicking - I believe we will start to see them close out games from this weekend onwards.
BM: I tipped the Reds to get it together and make their way into the finals from the start of the season, and despite their kicking woes and inability to close out the second half, I still expect them to turn it around and push their way up the ladder. We've seen how potent their backline can be, especially with James O'Connor leading the way from No.10, while their forward pack has ammunition in Taniela Tupou, Liam Wright and young gun Harry Wilson. But now's the time for the Reds to put it all together and get their season really humming. They trail the Brumbies and the Rebels on the Australian conference ladder with just eight points, but the number doesn't tell the full story. They should have won last week against defending champions the Crusaders, and there's a case to argue that they should have beaten the Brumbies in Canberra and the Lions in Johannesburg. I expect they'll find their rhythm against the Bulls this weekend and won't be knocked off their perch for the rest of the year.
SHOULD SANZAAR FOLLOW EUROPEAN FOOTBALL'S DECISION TO PLAY MATCHES BEHIND CLOSED DOORS?
SB: Given Super Rugby's southern hemisphere spread, it's hard to see how the competition continues in its regular format beyond Round 7 this weekend. We've already had one positive test for the coronavirus for a fan at last week's Rebels-Lions game, and with the World Health Organisation officially declaring a pandemic I can't see how any sport continues to operate as it normally would moving forward. The smart thing to do would be to get through this weekend and address the situation early next week, and proceed accordingly from there. Certainly playing games behind closed doors is one option but it could also be overruled by an government not willing to take any chances. Let's see what the next few days bring but the signs certainly aren't good, and people's health must be the first priority.
BM: With the coronavirus officially labelled a pandemic by the World Health Organisation overnight and the outbreak likely to only get worse before it gets better, it makes sense for SANZAAR to take extraordinary measures early and follow European football's lead by either playing matches behind closed doors or postponing matches until a later date. We don't want to fear monger and we don't want to build panic, but the simple fact is hosting large public events is problematic when trying to curb the spread of a highly contagious disease. The easiest solution would be to continue the matches as planned but behind closed doors - yes, teams will lose revenue, but reducing the opportunity of spreading the virus while also continuing the competition is the smartest option. Until a player tests positive - which should see the suspension of all games until further notice - continue the competition as is, give fans something to watch and cheer, but keep it behind closed doors.