Other than the fact that Auckland is sitting pretty at the top of the Premership, there are all sorts of permutations for the semifinals and relegation. Unlike the Six Nations, which is decided on points differential, any tie breaker needed in the Mitre 10 Cup is decided on the fate of the regular season match between the two tied sides.
No less than four Premiership sides can still be relegated, too, which is remarkable and probably unprecedented in the decade of the two-tier system.
The Championship semifinals picture is decidedly clearer. We know that Hawke’s Bay and Otago will host semis. We know that Taranaki will be travelling for its semi, and either Northland or Southland will be joining the Bulls in the top four. But we will know if the Taniwha are in or with work still to do by around 9pm on Friday night.
Auckland: 34 points
Premiership: Canterbury (a)
The 2018 Premership champion might be tempted to select two hookers on the bench after a bizarre home win over Northland last weekend.
But those four points were priceless, as defeats by Tasman and Waikato have handed Auckland top spot, meaning it’s on target for a home final. Most of the cards will have fallen into place around them by kickoff at 4.35pm on Sunday in Christchurch, so they could relax mentally.
But in the final analysis, this one will come down to just how badly Auckland wants to beat Canterbury. That’s never been a problem before, so may the best team win.
Tasman: 29 points
Crossover: Otago (a)
What to make of the Mako?
The defending champs have dropped three of their last six and were blanked 29-0 by a resurgent Canterbury last weekend.
They should still, however, be favoured to win their crossover match under the Forsyth Barr roof on Saturday. They do need two points to ensure their semifinal berth, but even one might just be enough. Then they’ll be glued to the TV on Sunday afternoon to watch BOP v North Harbour.
Waikato: 29 points
Crossover: Northland (a)
The Mooloos will have to swiftly park the crushing disappointment of a last gasp loss to the Steamers in the Chiefs Country Cup clash.
It was their second straight defeat and leaves their home semifinal hopes hanging by a thread. They would settle for just making the semis now, but they will be going all out to clinch five points in their crossover Kaikohe clash with the Taniwha. The Mako will place higher in any tie breaker scenario, but the Mooloos can heap the early pressure on if they get their game together on Saturday afternoon.
Bay of Plenty: 26 points
Premiership: North Harbour (h)
The Steamers are probably the form team in the Mitre 10 Cup, reeling off four wins on the bounce at precisely the right time of the season.
But they face the second most in-form team, North Harbour, in Tauranga in the pivotal Sunday afternoon clash that should attract upwards of 10,000 punters.
They will know exactly what they have to do by then but a bonus point victory could rocket them into home semifinal contention. Their outlook may depend on how desperate Northland is to beat Waikato by Saturday arvo. A heavy loss, though, could see the Steamers staring relegation squarely in the face. That’s how small the margins are.
North Harbour: 25 points
Premiership: Bay of Plenty (a)
Harbour is poised and ready to strike, secure in the knowledge that is has one of the best scrums in the land and one of the best goalkickers.
All it has to do is beat Bay of Plenty. Sounds simple, right? Not so fast. A bonus point victory would secure its berth in the top four, but it would lose any tie breaker with the two teams below it, Canterbury and Wellington. So 30 competition points are the magic number for the in-form Harbour, fresh off a decisive win over Counties Manukau. A loss and it could yet be relegated, which would be unlucky in some ways but a reflection on the poor 0-3 start to the campaign.
Canterbury: 24 points
Premiership: Auckland (h)
Every scenario is still on the table for Canterbury, but the red and blacks will have their fate resting in their own hands by kickoff on Sunday afternoon at home against Auckland.
Chances are they will be in the relegation slot by then, unless the Lions have a complete meltdown at home against the Turbos.
But the manner in which they dispatched the Mako 29-0 in Blenheim would suggest there is plenty of life yet in the perennial contenders.
Wellington: 24 points
Crossover: Manawatu (h)
There are too many ‘ifs’ surrounding Wellington’s form to be certain of anything.
The Lions were disappointing in the Shield loss to Hawke’s Bay last Sunday, and have dropped four of their last six. They will lose any tie breaker to Canterbury, but will nudge ahead of Bay of Plenty and North Harbour.
Their only focus, though, will be on a bonus point victory against Manawatu on Saturday night. That might even suffice to book a place in the semis. The rankings would suggest an easy win for the home team, but the Turbos will be playing fiercely for pride. It could be a nervous Sunday afternoon in front of the box for the Lions and their fans.
Hawke’s Bay: 31 points
Championship: Taranaki (a)
Victory at the Bull Ring in Inglewood would be enough for the Magpies to take top spot and home billing through the finals.
They should be up for it, though Taranaki will be too, so this could be close, especially if the Shield defence last Sunday has expended much energy.
Otago: 29 points
Crossover: Tasman (h)
Surprisingly off colour in Invercargill last weekend, Otago will be thirsting for a third crossover win for 2020 when it hosts the faltering Mako.
Victory would heap pressure back on Hawke’s Bay to see who finishes top of the table. A home semifinal is already in the bag.
Taranaki: 22 points
Championship: Hawke’s Bay (h)
Taranaki can finish third or fourth and will know exactly what is required by the Sunday 2.05pm kickoff.
The Bulls did enough to defeat Manawatu last weekend, but have won just two of their last six after such a promising start to the season.
Northland: 19 points
Crossover: Waikato (h)
Northland’s rugby weekend will start with appointment viewing on Friday at 7.05pm when the Stags travel to Pukekohe.
Southland will need to win to force Northland to beat Waikato on Saturday afternoon to reach the semis. Something tells me the Taniwha will be up for this match anyway, as this is the first NPC match ever hosted at Kaikohe’s Lindvart Park. But they will still be annoyed that they could not put away a 14-man Auckland last weekend.
Southland: 16 points
Championship: Counties Manukau (a)
You’ve gotta hand it to Southland.
Few outside our southernmost province would have picked the Stags to beat Otago last weekend, but they gave themselves a fighting chance to slip into the top four.
Now they must beat the Steelers in the round 10 opener and then support the Mooloos in the Far North.
Counties Manukau: 10 points
Championship: Southland (h)
The Steelers’ season is spoiled, but they can still be the spoilers.
All of Northland will be shouting for them on Friday night as they can knock Southland out of contention and win for just the third time in a frustrating season.
Manawatu: 9 points
Crossover: Wellington (a)
The Turbos could yet prop up the Championship table, so they may as well leave it all out on the park in Wellington on Saturday night.
One cannot imagine them being cannon fodder for the Lions, so they will be amped to make the home side work for the points.