Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town - To an increasing extent, the
South African conference in Super Rugby is looking like an eccentric
professor’s study ... cluttered.
There are pros and cons to the situation,
as the ordinary-season programme has effectively hit its midway mark - nine of
the 15 teams have now completed eight of their 16 games, although four have
played nine and two have played seven.
It means that as many as four of the SA
sides can presently be considered in the realistic hunt for playoffs spots,
although the logjam is also having the effect of keeping our teams away from
the prime slots at the very top of the overall table.
GALLERY: Kings v Bulls
GALLERY: Sharks v Cheetahs
VIDEO: Kings v Bulls, highlights
VIDEO: Sharks v Cheetahs, highlights
On Saturday, both the Cheetahs and Bulls
advanced at different times to the helm of the conference, both unseating the
previously supreme Sharks who have slipped two rungs.
By the end of the round the Bulls led the
local field by a point from the Cheetahs, courtesy of their cherry-on-top, late
four-try bonus point in a thumping 34-0 win against the Kings in Port Elizabeth
that silenced most of a spirited crowd of 46,000 at Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium.
The Sharks have slipped to third, and
seventh overall, after their lacklustre, bumbling home reverse to the Cheetahs,
which sees them leave on their four-match overseas leg debilitated by successive
defeats and a mounting injury toll.
Probably their biggest concern surrounds
Springbok loosehead prop Beast Mtawarira, who picked up a calf strain and was
not expected to leave with the initial tour party - the Sharks could have a
huge problem at No 1 in the short term as Dale Chadwick remains a long-term
casualty and Allan Dell, the 21-year-old novice named among the travel group,
is reportedly also labouring with an injury.
The Sharks’ embarrassing drought in the try
column also continued in the 12-6, rain-marred reverse at Kings Park: they have
not dotted in any of their last three matches; whilst five of their eight games
in total have not produced one to their credit.
It is hardly the ideal way to enter their
challenging first Australasian fixture, against champions the Chiefs in
Hamilton on Saturday.
It is difficult to decide whether the
Chiefs also coming off successive losses - to the Reds and Waratahs - can be
considered a good thing for Keegan Daniel’s troops.
The men from Waikato may only be more
hell-bent on restoring winning ways against opponents who will have flown
through time zones for the encounter.
The Bulls and Cheetahs were big winners
this weekend in every respect, even though the now conference-leading Bulls
effectively remain fifth overall on a pure log-points basis, although
tournament rules have them third because each group leader automatically
commands a top-three perch.
What the two Highveld sides have in their
favour for the next four weeks, especially, is a favourable schedule that could
see either - or both - pull clear of the congestion in the SA conference.
That period includes a bye for both sides,
where four points are guaranteed, and they also boast only home games in the
period at Loftus and the Free State Stadium respectively.
The Bulls will entertain the Waratahs,
Hurricanes and basement Highlanders during the stint, while the Cheetahs host
the Kings, Hurricanes and Reds.
Naka Drotske’s charges will particularly
appreciate their “off” week after the Kings game (Saturday, 19:10) as they have
not experienced a bye yet and put in another really gutsy, wholehearted effort
to upset the Sharks in their own stamping ground.
The golden opportunity for these two teams
to prosper over the next month or so is only enhanced by the fact that the
Sharks and Stormers, who were arguably the most fancied two SA teams ahead of
this year’s competition, will both be campaigning abroad for its duration.
Never mind the fact that the two biggest
coastal franchises traditionally travel quite well in Super Rugby: it is a lot
more difficult to bank wins consistently in New Zealand and Australia, and
excited talk in some circles that the re-emerging Stormers could even bank a
unique clean sweep might quickly be proved wide of the mark.
What cannot be denied is that the
Capetonians, who were inactive this weekend ahead of their first tour
assignment against the unpredictable Hurricanes, will have looked on domestic
events with some satisfaction.
They will know that they are right back in
the hunt, on paper at least, for the conference honours ahead of the playoffs:
while fourth on the local log and 11th overall, they have a game in hand over
the Bulls and are only four points adrift of them.
Unlike the Sharks, who have a seemingly
stiffer tour agenda, the Stormers are also in the beneficial position of seeing
several seasoned customers filtering back into the plans imminently, rather
than injury woes going the other way.
There can be no question that the SA team
of the weekend was the Bulls, who played with power, precision and welcome
enterprise in the first half against the unsuspecting Kings, even if they ran
out of steam to an extent for longish tracts of the second before a key second
wind at the death.
Young Jan Serfontein is looking more and
more the real deal at inside centre, though he benefited hugely from Morne
Steyn mixing up his game to an illuminating extent at flyhalf - the experienced
Bok pivot was centrally involved in several thrilling attacking plays and
currently looks a hungrier, edgier customer than Pat Lambie does for the Bok No
10 jersey in June.
Mind you, the collective concern that the
Sharks may just be “heading south” at a rate of knots can hardly be helping
Test incumbent Lambie’s own game right now ...
Next week’s fixtures (home teams first, all
Friday: Hurricanes v Stormers, 09:35; Reds
v Blues, 11:40. Saturday: Chiefs v Sharks, 09:35; Brumbies v Force, 11:40;
Bulls v Waratahs, 17:05; Cheetahs v Kings, 19:10. Sunday: Crusaders v Rebels,
06:05. Bye: Highlanders.
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