Rob Houwing

SA sides look unlikely champs

2013-04-15 06:56
Sport24 chief writer Rob Houwing (File)
Cape Town - The Sharks keep their place at the top of the South African conference in Super Rugby, but even the domestic leaders lost some of their gloss in the latest round of matches.

There is a long way to go - most of the five teams in the SA group only reach the halfway mark of their ordinary-season schedules next weekend - but as things stand none are playing with the sort of lustre to firmly suggest they are overall title material in 2013.

It is advantage Australia right now: the Brumbies and Reds boast more points than any of the other 13 teams in the competition, with Jake White’s charges atop the pile and the side from Queensland, the 2011 champions, only limited to fourth on the combined standings because of the tournament stipulation that each conference leader occupy one of the top three slots.

VIDEO: Stormers v Sharks, highlights

VIDEO: Bulls v Cheetahs, highlights

VIDEO: Rebels v Kings, highlights

Some comfort for the rest is that the two best-performing Aussie outfits go head to head in Brisbane in the most attractive (to neutrals, anyway) fixture of next weekend’s action, so one of them is likely to lose a bit of steam.

Still, if the knockout phase, hypothetically, began immediately and on the basis of the current pecking order, South Africa would sport the worst qualifying ranking, with the Sharks forced into an extra match in the finals series and only the Brumbies (Australia) and Chiefs (New Zealand) assured of coveted home semi-finals.

If there were fears a few days ago of our conference becoming a “group of death”, they were only enhanced this weekend as both the Sharks and second-placed Cheetahs lost in respective derbies to the Stormers and Bulls, whilst the lowest-placed Kings, expected to be mere fodder to all comers before the season began, served further gallant notice in their final game abroad that they could be significant nuisance value in a stream of derbies to come for them.

As former Springbok coach Nick Mallett noted in the SuperSport studio: “(The SA conference) is getting a bit blocked up ... no one’s really made a break for it.”

There is now only a difference of 11 points between the Sharks in first (26) and the Kings in last (15) on the conference table, whereas in New Zealand the Chiefs (29) are a vast 23 points ahead of the abject Highlanders (6) and in Australia the Brumbies (33) are 18 points clear of basement teams the Force and Rebels (15 each).

The all-South African games on Saturday evening were typically breathless and uncompromising, albeit not quite the exhibitions of flowing, daring rugby that old-school purists desire.

Both the Stormers and Bulls largely won because they were the more “desperate” on the day at Newlands and Loftus respectively.

That said, the slightly embattled Capetonians produced arguably the most meritorious showing of all the South African teams, their forwards - who were under a fresh cloud after the late surrender in Bloemfontein a week earlier - really rising to the occasion against a higher-rated and more seasoned Sharks eight.

The set scrums represented the most conspicuous area of Stormers improvement, with young tighthead Frans Malherbe getting an early, morale-boosting big right shoulder in on Beast Mtawarira and then loosehead Steven Kitshoff quickly following suit by having Jannie du Plessis back-pedalling unpleasantly too - the home team seldom surrendered their grip after that.

It may be of some concern to Springbok coach Heyneke Meyer, who is about to supervise an early camp for a broad national squad, that his old first-team firm of Mtawarira and, in particular, Du Plessis are not playing to known levels of front row excellence at present.

Gratifying also for the Stormers, as they got welcome front-foot traction, was one of their several pre-season recruits from the Lions, Michael Rhodes, performing with great gusto - though fellow flanker Siya Kolisi, a constant physical colossus, was not at all far behind.

The Sharks laboured to get over the advantage line all match, and seem to be in the midst of one of those strange spells of drought for them in try-scoring terms: this was the second consecutive game where they have not got over the whitewash, and fourth time in their seven fixtures thus far.

Jean de Villiers’s side have a welcome bye before starting their Australasian leg, although with three wins from seven they still have lots of restorative work to do if they are to somehow seize conference supremacy for a third time in as many seasons.

Meanwhile in the Highveld tussle, the Cheetahs’ glorious run of five victories came to a halt against the Bulls, although towards the end there were strong suggestions that the visitors might pull the game from the fire in the manner they had done a few days earlier at home to the Stormers.

The three-time champions looked composed defensively, which checked the traditional enterprise of the Cheetahs, although whether the Bulls have the true tight-five clout to challenge for another title remains shrouded in doubt. Can they stick effectively to their fairly predictable, conservative game-plan given that drawback?

I still believe there is a growing danger of South Africa sporting several teams who are just plain “decent” at the end of the ordinary season, as opposed to one or two who are outstanding.

Mind you, there remains ample time yet for shifts in trends ...

Next round of matches (home teams first, all times SA):

Friday: Hurricanes v Force, 09:35; Waratahs v Chiefs, 11:40. Saturday: Crusaders v Highlanders, 09:35; Reds v Brumbies, 11:40; Sharks v Cheetahs, 17:05; Kings v Bulls, 19:10. Byes: Stormers, Rebels, Blues.

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing 

Read more on:    super 15  |  rugby
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