WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) — Super Rugby teams will have completed a third of the regular season by the end of this weekend's sixth round, and the tournament is playing out as expected.
The one surprise so far has been the form of Argentina's Jaguares, a test-strength side which has won four of five matches. They are placed second behind last year's finalists the Lions in their Africa conference and would be fourth on a combined table.
While the Jaguares' performance provides some chance for tournament organizers to argue last year's expansion of Super Rugby to 18 teams has not entirely failed, the Argentinians' form so far has to be regarded with caution.
Their only away win came at the expense of the lowly Southern Kings, and their home wins have been over the Lions, the Cheetahs and the Queensland Reds, while they lost in Cape Town to the Stormers.
The Jaguares are among four teams to have byes in the weekend's shortened round. The best matches are the South African derbies between the Stormers and Cheetahs in Cape Town and the Lions and Sharks in Johannesburg.
New Zealand teams seem likely to achieve another clean sweep of their weekend matches: the Dunedin-based Highlanders face the winless Melbourne Rebels, the Auckland-based Blues meet the Western Force, the Hamilton-based Chiefs take on South Africa's Bulls while the defending champion Hurricanes meet the Reds.
On Sunday, the Crusaders face the New South Wales Waratahs at Sydney to complete the round.
The Rebels, Force, Reds and Waratahs occupy four of the bottom seven places on the championships table, while the ACT Brumbies — who also have a bye this weekend — are the best-placed Australian team in eighth.
The Rebels have yet to win a match this season, the Force, Reds and Waratahs have each won one and the Brumbies two out of five. None of the Australian sides has beaten a New Zealand opponent this season and the Waratahs and Reds were both heavily beaten in matches in South Africa.
Those performances have fueled calls for one Australian side to be cut from Super Rugby next season, along with one or two South African teams, and tournament organizer SANZAAR is reported to have agreed. But which teams will go remains a fraught question.
Reports this week suggested the Perth-based Force are set to be cut, but that brought denials from the Australian Rugby Union and an impassioned defense of the Force from its administrators and players.
SANZAAR's delay in revealing how the tournament will be re-structured next season is leading to anxiety among all Australian players who face the prospect of 20 percent of professional positions in Australia being lost if one team is cut.
Australia's Rugby Union Players Association says the loss of an Australian team will lead to an increasing exodus of players to teams in Europe and Japan.
"The challenge during this period of uncertainty is that it has clearly obstructed teams and players from negotiating and entering into contracts with certainty over the future and there is no doubt that has made overseas opportunities more attractive for some players," RUPA chief executive Ross Xenos said.