Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town – It is a very long shot, but the Bulls’ only method
now of squeezing into the Super Rugby playoffs is to bank on a protracted run
of late-campaign misery by pace-setting compatriots the Sharks and rack up
plenty of home-turf wins themselves.
As I suggested over the weekend, even mathematically it seems
just about impossible at this stage for two South African teams to make the
six-team cut: the Bulls and Lions in 10th and 11th spots
respectively are just too far off the pace, whilst the minnow Cheetahs and
Stormers are simply playing for pride and slightly better finishing berths in
the remaining weeks of ordinary season.
The Bulls can only get to nine wins from here even if they
prevail in all six remaining games back on local soil – four at Loftus – and
the history of the conference system show that 10 wins is usually the minimum
Ironically the Lions, with an extra game in hand, could
theoretically get to 11 via a seven-game charge of relentless victories –
takers, anyone? – but they have no bonus points at all and simply aren’t going
to make up the massive ground.
But whilst South Africa are dead certainties by my
calculation to offer only one team for the finals series – our worst tally
since the advent of the new system in 2011 – I may have been a wee bit premature
in saying it will inevitably be the Sharks.
If the Durban-based outfit transfer their jaded tendency of
late into their four-game overseas tour, starting against the Melbourne Rebels
on Friday, then the Bulls can cheekily exploit a back-door option to a playoffs
ticket: by snatching the domestic conference from under their noses.
It would almost certainly be in the less favourable third
place overall (meaning no home semi-final and an additional game ahead of the
last four as well) but a Sharks tour implosion plus a really strong Bulls
“second wind” back home could yet see the conference lead change hands at or
near the death.
As things stand the Sharks have a seriously sturdy, 11-point
lead over the Bulls, their nearest challengers in the SA conference, and with
seven games left to the Pretoria team’s six.
But if Jake White’s charges were to suffer pretty close to
the same indignity abroad as all prior South African tourists this year (bear
in mind it is zero wins from 12 attempts thus far), it may just be “game on”
for the conference spoils if the Bulls manage to gnaw away at that lead through
contrasting success of their own in the less taxing environment back home.
For instance, imagine if the Sharks only manage one tour
victory over the next few weeks, whilst the Bulls eke out wins each time in a
healthy run of all-Loftus games on the immediate radar against the Cheetahs
(this Saturday), Stormers and Brumbies?
That could close the gap quite dramatically, making for an
interesting little dice to the finish after the June Test window period.
The Bulls have been disappointingly one-dimensional on tour,
but at least been competitive in every fixture, as evidenced by grabbing a
losing bonus point each time – they have six bonus points to the Sharks’ three
They are traditionally a much tougher proposition at Loftus,
where they also tend to play a little more expansively on the firm surface,
especially when they have stamped their authority first in the engine room.
Make no mistake, the Bulls soaring to the front of the shaky
SA pile remains a tall order – don’t discount the possibility that the Sharks
recapture some necessary pizzazz on tour, quickly dousing the likelihood of it
The bottom line is that most South African neutrals would
prefer the Sharks to prosper from here on in, given that they can still claim a
treasured top-two place and thus a far less harrowing route to the main
The Bulls, surely, can’t do it that way now?
These are the
remaining fixtures for the Sharks and Bulls:
Sharks (31 points
from nine games, first overall): Rebels (a), Brumbies (a), Crusaders (a),
Blues (a), Stormers (h), Cheetahs (a), Stormers (a).
Bulls (20 points from
10 games, 10th overall): Cheetahs (h), Stormers (h), Brumbies
(h), Lions (a), Stormers (a), Rebels (h).
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