Johannesburg - The Bulls strengthened their position at the top of the Super 14 log, but it was the help they and the Stormers received from the Sharks that was probably the noteworthy aspect of the seventh round of the Vodacom Super 14.
The last minute Ruan Pienaar penalty that sunk the Hurricanes would have been a massive blow to the title challenge of the dangerous Wellington team. It was their fourth successive loss to a South African side, and it leaves them now well behind the eight-ball and with a massive amount of work to do if they want to be in contention for a semifinal.
And ditto for the Chiefs, who were edged out by the Brumbies. Both these strong New Zealand teams started well, but have now lost a lot of ground over the past few weeks. With the Bulls still unbeaten and the Stormers still with just one defeat on their record, the casualty rate of the other teams is strengthening the possibility of two local teams making the semifinals.
The danger though is the Australian teams, with the Waratahs moving up into the top four courtesy of the late intercept try that allowed them to escape against the impressive Blues in Sydney, and the Brumbies back on the winning trail. The Waratahs have 23 points, the same number as the second placed Stormers and third placed Crusaders, but the Stormers and Crusaders have a game in hand.
The Bulls, as expected, consolidated their already vice-like grip on the competition, although perhaps not quite as emphatically as expected, as their failure to grab a bonus point against the Force in Perth has left an opening for the Stormers or Crusaders to go top next week if they win well and the Bulls come short against the Blues.
They would have left Perth on the next leg of their journey to New Zealand in no doubt that the loose rugby that sufficed at Loftus in the home leg will be punished on the road.
They scored three tries in beating the Western Force 28-15, and their detractors will do well to remember the truth in that old saying that it is the champion teams that can win when they are playing badly. There is no denying that the Bulls are a champion team, and although they were behind at halftime, they did show good composure in the second half and won with something to spare.
But the Blues showed that they will be tough opponents for the Bulls at Eden Park next Saturday, where Victor Matfield may have to rethink his policy of turning down kickable penalty opportunities. Good though the Blues were in Sydney, they did not do their own title aspirations any favours by giving away the game in the last 10 minutes, and the Bulls and Stormers will know they will be going in against a desperate team over the next two weekends.
By scoring a thrilling 29-26 win over the Hurricanes, the Sharks vindicated the theory that one win would bring them the confidence needed to regain form and start getting across the line as winners more regularly. They were helped though by a Hurricanes team that at times played daft rugby and were punished for trying to play too much from inside their own territory.
The Sharks now come home to Durban to face the Reds on Easter Saturday, and the momentum they have picked up will please the Bulls and Stormers, at least for now, as the Reds are starting to look distinctly like semifinal contenders themselves.
Of course, a little further down the road, the Bulls and Stormers are destined to clash with the Sharks, so perhaps a complete return to form for their fellow South African team will have an edge to it as they head towards a potentially frenetic final few weeks where the Bulls, Stormers, Crusaders and Sharks are destined to play out a form of mini-tournament among themselves.
There is still an outside chance the Sharks might be in semi-final contention then, so they will not lack for motivation as they start their home run this week.