SA’s Super 14 grip tightens
Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town – A second all-South African final in three years in the Vodacom Super 14 has moved a crucial step closer to likelihood.
The only regrettable aspect to neutrals in this country is that the Sharks, finalists in 2007 when the Bulls dramatically snatched the trophy at the death in Durban, have had their always slim hopes of a 2010 semi-final rally dashed – courtesy of 27-19 defeat to the same foes at soggy Loftus on Saturday.
But a showpiece on May 29 featuring the Bulls and Stormers, the classical “north v south” duel, is still a very realistic possibility as those two sides dug deeper weekend footholds at the top of the table with two rounds left.
Victor Matfield’s defending champions moved to 43 points after their deserved derby triumph over the Sharks, who started with ominous intent but were gradually pinned back and pacified by the steely, composed blue machine.
The Stormers, who had been saddled on 34 points before the latest fixtures alongside the Crusaders and Reds, in turn cemented second spot impressively on Friday night by advancing to 38, now four clear of the very team they trounced at Newlands 42-14 and the Queenslanders as well.
Both the Crusaders and Reds had nothing to show for their efforts this weekend in log-point terms and that leaves them jammed in third and fourth with all of the Waratahs, Brumbies and Hurricanes breathing very uncomfortably down their necks.
You have to wonder whether the plucky Reds’ fire has finally been doused – they have a second-row crisis of dizzying proportions after their loss to compatriots the Brumbies, with both Adam Byrnes and Rob Simmons crying off the Canberra battlefield in the first quarter with what seemed fairly serious injuries and joining James Horwill and Van Humphries on the crocked list.
It virtually crippled their once cohesive pack and now they face the resurgent Hurricanes away in a game which could eliminate one of them from the knockout-phase picture.
Things look much rosier in South African terms, even if all five of the semis contenders behind the pace-setting Bulls and Stormers will be aware that these two lock horns at Newlands in the very last match of the league phase, so somebody is going to drop points from the dream encounter.
But next weekend is an opportunity for both hungry local outfits to all but seal home semis anyway – that will definitely be the case for the Bulls if they beat the Crusaders at Loftus, because nobody then could knock them out of a top-two finish.
It would also be extremely hard to deny the Stormers a Newlands semi-final should they beat the Sharks at Absa Stadium.
The home side in that fixture will only be playing for pride, although you suspect they have already known that for much of their gutsy turnaround in recent weeks, until they came a cropper in Pretoria.
Smart money suggests the Stormers, with their better all-round talent and verve at present, may continue on their winning ways in Durban, especially if their pack fronts up satisfactorily to a gnarly Sharks eight.
Behind the scrum, it is impossible to escape a feeling that John Plumtree’s charges lack some sort of X-factor and cutting edge this year, and the Stormers have that in abundance – especially with Springbok centre Jaque Fourie really running into a rich vein of form.
In terms of the ongoing but flickering challenge from abroad, maybe the Waratahs are the likeliest obstacle now to a pair of semis on South African turf.
They were pretty awful in losing heavily to the Highlanders at unforgiving Invercargill, but full houses against the porous Chiefs (away) and then Hurricanes (back in Sydney), which would take them to 43 points, are not out of the question if coach Chris Hickey reads the riot act.
Certainly, though, the cream of South Africa’s Super 14 assault are sitting extremely pretty …
Remaining fixtures for top seven sides:
Bulls (43 points): Crusaders (h), Stormers (a)
Stormers (38 points): Sharks (a), Bulls (h)
Crusaders (34 points): Bulls (a), Brumbies (h)
Reds (34 points): Hurricanes (a), Highlanders (h)
Waratahs (33 points): Chiefs (a), Hurricanes (h)
Brumbies (32 points): Highlanders (h), Crusaders (a)
Hurricanes (32 points): Reds (h), Waratahs (a)