Johannesburg - Currie Cup title-holders the Free State Cheetahs are in danger of missing the semi-finals this season after a 64-36 hiding from Blue Bulls this weekend.
Although third in the standings with one league round left, the severely depleted Bloemfontein outfit could be overtaken by the Golden Lions and Bulls.
The Lions host the Free Staters in Johannesburg this Saturday, while Bulls have home advantage in Pretoria over generally poor travellers the Pumas 24 hours earlier.
Runaway leaders the Sharks (47 points) have secured a last-four place, leaving Western Province (32), Free State Cheetahs (31), Golden Lions (30), Blue Bulls (27) and Pumas (26) chasing three slots.
WP, the Lions and Bulls seem likeliest to qualify for the semi-finals of the 126-year national provincial competition, the oldest in world rugby.
The Durban-based Sharks are favoured to go all the way as a home semi-final victory would secure a final at Kings Park.
The Cheetahs are paying a heavy price for fielding teams in two competitions simultaneously - the Currie Cup and the predominantly European PRO14.
The Bloemfontein outfit joined Irish, Italian, Scottish and Welsh sides in the PRO14 after they were kicked out of Super Rugby, which is slimming from 18 teams to 15 next year.
With the best Cheetahs chosen for PRO14 fixtures, the Currie Cup side has suffered, losing four of the last five matches while conceding 257 points.
Bulls fullback Warrick Gelant and skipper and outside centre Burger Odendaal scored hat-tricks against the porous Cheetahs defence in Bloemfontein.
After leading only 26-22 at half-time, the 23-time Currie Cup champions ran riot in the second half to finish with 10 tries.
Cheetahs substitute Daniel Maartens achieved a rare feat for a flanker by scoring a hat-trick.
The Lions climbed from last to fourth thanks to a bonus-point 29-20 victory over WP at Ellis Park in a Johannesburg match briefly suspended due to a hail storm.
Trailing after two minutes and 20-10 behind in the second half, the Lions responded with tries from winger Aphiwe Dyantyi, substitute Robert Kruger and centre Rohan Janse van Rensburg.
The Lions have suffered more than any other Currie Cup team from Springbok Rugby Championship call-ups and injuries, with a notable casualty being skipper and No 8 Warren Whiteley.
Griquas, the only side with no chance of making the semi-finals, upset the hopes of Pumas with a shock 38-35 victory in Nelspruit.
The Pumas must have felt they were on course for victory when 28-10 ahead at half-time, but the only penalty of the match, from Griquas flyhalf George Whitehead, ultimately proved decisive.
Whitehead is the Currie Cup leading scorer this season with 96 points - 31 more than Pumas flyhalf Kobus Marais.