Cape Town – Whatever happens in the remaining three weekends
of knockout fare in Super Rugby, South African rugby has affirmed its
well-being by effectively having dominated the lion’s share of the 2012
Last year, the first of the new conference system, the
ordinary-season programme – let’s face it, really the “marathon” part of the
race -- ended with two sides apiece from South Africa, New Zealand and
Australia qualifying for the playoffs.
But this season is the first to be fairly obviously bossed
by one nation ... and that honour falls this country’s way as all of the
overall log-winning Stormers plus Bulls and Sharks have made it through the six-team
They will be joined by the Chiefs and Crusaders from New
Zealand and just one qualifier from Australia, defending champions the Reds,
after Jake White’s Brumbies cruelly plummeted right out of contention on the
last full-programme Saturday by crashing at home to the Blues without even a
losing bonus point that would have ensured their onward passage.
The Stormers and Chiefs now bask in the luxury of a bye
weekend ahead of their home semis while they await the outcomes of finals
series qualifiers next Saturday between the Crusaders and Bulls (09:35,
Christchurch) and Reds and Sharks (11:40, Brisbane).
It was a nervy old weekend for just about all the sides who
started it in the playoffs hunt, with several of them failing to play to
potential – the Stormers had some especially unexpected white-knuckle periods
at Newlands against the modest Melbourne Rebels – as the various order-of-placing
permutations clearly affected mindsets.
But at the end of it all South Africans were broadly
entitled to a degree of smug satisfaction.
Considering the retirements of so many iconic Springbok
figures at the end of last season, this was thought to be something a
transitional year for our rugby, with the attached pitfalls that phenomenon can
And while world champions the All Blacks will undoubtedly and
rightly still be installed as favourites for the new-look Rugby Championship,
the Super Rugby campaign thus far has shown South African rugby’s heart to be
still beating strongly in most respects.
As Pierre Spies, the Bulls captain, noted in the immediate
post-match television interview after his team had seen off the plucky Lions
37-20 at Loftus, some pundits had not tipped the Pretoria-based side to feature
in the playoffs at all in 2012, so they have already exceeded expectations.
Their “punishment”, alas, for ending just above the Sharks
is what seems the trickier overseas trek, to play the seven-time champion
Crusaders in their own stronghold.
The Bulls have a pretty good modern home record against
these foes ... but quite the opposite applies when it comes to tackling them
It was a tribute to the Lions’ resolve, in fact, that the
Bulls found themselves not having the liberty of attempting to win without a
bonus point, and thereby getting the Reds fixture in Brisbane instead (which
goes to the Sharks who may have a more realistic chance of progressing, despite
also coming off a debilitating long haul).
The game at Loftus was fast and fluid and, with the Lions
right in it at 20-20 at the break, Spies and company simply had to gratefully
bank every point on the scoreboard that came their way, and abandon possible
thoughts of some cunning manipulation.
Although the Bulls rectified many of their first-half
gremlins in a much more dominant and physically imposing second, the mediocrity
of their scrummaging was exposed once more; it is something that will mightily
interest the formidable Crusaders’ front-row arsenal of Messrs Crockett, Flynn
and the two Franks brothers.
As for the Sharks, their comfortable 34-15 victory over the
Cheetahs only provided further evidence of what a fickle side they can be: they
were lethargic in the first 40 minutes and nine points adrift, but then
galloped to a four-try haul in the second period.
If the quality of that second half can be repeated for the
major portion of their game in Queensland, there is no reason why they should
not come away with a win – they have already beaten the Reds once this season,
27-22 at Mr Price Kings Park in mid-March.
It would set them up for a cracking semi-final derby against
the Stormers at Newlands, although the dice remains loaded against Keegan
Daniel’s outfit, given the travel factor.
The Reds sweat for
the moment on the fate of string-pulling Quade Cooper, who faces citing
procedures before they will know whether he can take up arms against the
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