Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town - Save for the Sharks, who enjoy a bye weekend, there is no rest for the wicked as South Africa’s other premier Super Rugby contenders face further key tussles with Antipodean opposition over the Easter period.
The Stormers, fresh from a terrific, Newlands bonus-point triumph over the hitherto unbeaten and log-leading Brumbies, now square up to seven-times champions the Crusaders at the same venue on Saturday night.
It is a clash that always generates particularly strong emotions in the Cape, given the large local support base for the men from Canterbury, who have to cross time zones for the encounter.
Meanwhile the Bulls, who came within a puff of chalk-dust of a late triumph over the Reds in Brisbane this weekend but did earn the consolation of a losing bonus point, lie in wait in Australia for their final tour fixture against the returning Brumbies.
It is that tricky period after a long stint abroad when mental fatigue often tends to set in for disadvantaged South African sides, but the comfort for the Bulls is that Jake White
’s charges will be returning from a long-haul flight, so it could be survival of the fittest in Canberra.
Even if they lose and come home with only one win from four starts, Pierre Spies
and company will remain very much in contention for a playoffs spot as their overseas leg came so early - they can look forward to a long run of games all on SA soil now.
But beating the Brumbies to register a 50 percent win record from the tour would also give the Bulls much more leeway to be able to experience the odd hiccup in their remaining ordinary-season matches.
At the same time, should they see off the Brumbies they will knock further wind from the overall log-leaders’ sails: the Brumbies do still enjoy a two-point lead at the top over defending champions the Chiefs despite their Newlands setback.
The Bulls did not start such staple figures as Springboks Morne Steyn and Juandre Kruger
in the narrow loss to the Reds, and possibly plan a genuine “A-team assault” next weekend.
And if they decide to try to give the Brumbies a dose of their own ball-in-hand medicine at times, they could do worse than give much greater game-time to still 19-year-old former Baby Bok midfield star Jan Serfontein
, who stepped and swerved thrillingly in a late role off the bench in Brisbane.
As for the Stormers, their own campaign seems right back on track, particularly bearing in mind that it is more and more apparent that the second half of their programme will be considerably easier - at least on paper - than the first.
There are still a few potential potholes in the road, of course, before the 2012 conference winners can size up weaker teams like the Kings and some of Australia’s more lame-duck outfits, starting with the classy Crusaders who have no special fear of Newlands given their record there in recent times.
Nevertheless, the Stormers fronted up very encouragingly to the wily Brumbies, knocking them off their often elegant stride through the sheer ferocity of their defence but also a budding willingness of their own to “play some rugby”.
The game was in the balance in the closing minutes - if anything the Brumbies were building an ominous second wind - until Gerhard van den Heever’s alert intercept finally took it away from the visitors, also ensuring a welcome four-try bonus point for the Stormers.
“They played very disciplined, physical footie,” was the sporting post-match tribute to the winning side from Brumbies captain Ben Mowen.
In Durban, Sharks coach John Plumtree rang the changes for the challenge - if that is the right word? - of the Melbourne Rebels after their humiliation a week earlier at the hands of the Brumbies.
The team he picked was geared for fluidity and pace and it certainly paid off as they roared back with a 10-try demolition of the Aussie crew, whose defence former Bok coach Nick Mallett branded “diabolical”.
Following their hugely praiseworthy, record third tour victory against the Force in Perth, the Cheetahs can - at least for the time being - be considered a fourth South African side in the hunt for playoffs berths.
Sadly for receding rookies the Kings, the Bloemfontein-based team’s stirring achievements abroad only massively increase the likelihood that it is they who will be the Lions’ opponents in the two-match relegation/promotion series at campaign’s end.
Still, the Eastern Cape side have certainly not disgraced yet, even though they were emphatically beaten by the Crusaders in their latest game.Next round of matches (home teams first, all times SA):
Friday: Highlanders v Reds, 08:35. Saturday: Hurricanes v Kings, 05:35; Chiefs v Blues, 08:35; Brumbies v Bulls, 10:40; Cheetahs v Rebels, 17:05; Stormers v Crusaders, 19:10. Sunday: Waratahs v Force, 07:05. Bye: Sharks.*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing