Cape Town - Respective bonus-point wins for Western Province and the Golden Lions in round seven of the Currie Cup this weekend have only increased the probability that these two will book home semi-finals in the competition.
With a four-point lead at the top and only three rounds of the pre-knockout phase left, WP also remain in pole position for rights to a possible home final which would be their second in as many years if they can go all the way to the showpiece.
This pair of pace-setters have consistently played the best brand of rugby thus far, beaten each other once, and have pretty similar run-ins to the semis: still remaining for Allister Coetzee’s charges, the 2013 runners-up, are games against the faltering Pumas (away), Cheetahs (away) and Sharks (home).
For the Lions, meanwhile, two away fixtures on the trot also await them now - Griquas and Sharks in that order - before they round off against the Cheetahs at Ellis Park.
A major common denominator, of course, is both having to face the defending champion Sharks, with Province boasting the advantage (on top of their not insignificant current lead) of tackling that business at Newlands whereas the Lions travel to Durban for it.
Whatever happens in the tussle for top spot, it is becoming more and more feasible that WP and the Lions will host semis.
The resurgent Sharks, buoyed by a gritty victory over the Blue Bulls at Loftus in the Saturday headliner, will not give up hope of a “top two” finish – especially knowing that they have remaining games against both sides above them – but with a full nine points to make up on WP (out of a possible further 15 at stake for all teams) and five on the Lions, it will take some doing.
Considering their inconsistent tournament so far, they will just be delighted in an immediate sense to have raided Pretoria successfully for a 26-15 win that also denied the Bulls any log point at all, and be right back on track for the semis even if that may be with a tough away assignment.
Remember that they actually won the Currie Cup “out of town” last year, so a hard road to glory wouldn’t necessarily unnerve them if it occurs.
As for Frans Ludeke’s outfit, they are now really sweating just to crack the last four as they have slumped to sixth on the overall log, five points shy of the Pumas and Cheetahs who, on 19 apiece, are in a battle royale at present to get into semis terrain.
The Bulls probably need to win all three remaining matches – starting with Cheetahs in Bloemfontein on Friday night – if they are to sneak into the playoffs from here.
A hallmark of both latest wins by the Lions (29-15 against the Pumas) and WP (36-12 against Griquas a day later) was decisive, fast starts by each fancied team which really teed up their eventual outcomes.
Both lost a fair bit of sparkle in the second period, especially after the four-try objective had been reached, which was a sign that preservation of some freshness for the knockout phase has begun to enter their thinking, whether intentionally or not.
It is here that Lions coach Johan Ackermann may be particularly sweating: their scrum has been a major cornerstone of their advance this season, and it certainly was that once more against the often violently retreating Pumas pack, but all of their frontline props seem to be wrestling niggles at the very least.
Returning tighthead Julian Redelinghuys has reportedly had a bit of a setback to his comeback quest after several weeks of inactivity, whilst their other No 3 Ruan Dreyer also suffered discomfort on Friday night and the same applied to that forceful, ball-carrying loosehead Schalk van der Merwe – he was forced back onto the pitch by Dreyer’s necessary withdrawal from the fray.
Delicate management may be required of these powerhouses if the Lions are to keep that formidable set-piece as a key weapon going forward, although the whole side also seems to thrive admirably in adversity.
Province, meanwhile, are over-stretching staple, hard-grafting loose forwards like Michael Rhodes and Nizaam Carr – they seem to tackle and carry like demons week after week -- although they may be in a position to introduce some rotation of personnel just ahead of the knockout stuff if they can clinch a strong semis berth, say, ahead of the last round of round-robin play.
Next round of matches (home teams first):
Friday, September 26
Pumas v Western Province - 19:00
Cheetahs v Blue Bulls - 19:10
Saturday, September 27
Sharks v EP Kings - 14:00
Griquas v Golden Lions - 15:00
*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing