Brenden Nel - SuperSport
Johannesburg - With the Stormers stumbling and the Sharks looking to pounce, the Bulls could hold the wild card to a nail-biting finish to the South African conference in this year’s Super Rugby competition.
The Sharks will be eyeing their chances after the Stormers loss to the Crusaders this past weekend, moving to within four points of the Cape side, but neither of the two South African front runners have easy run-ins to the end of the competition.
The prize of winning the South African leg of the conference ups the stakes significantly, as it gives a home ground advantage that is worth its weight in gold as the competition runs down.
The effects of the longer competition are already becoming more and more apparent as the weeks roll bye. Injuries, fatigue and strategy are playing a massive role in the way teams will approach this unknown part of the season, with getting it right in the final part of the season even more important than early form.
This, it seems, is where the defending champions hold the key to the conference. With two massive derbies ahead against the Sharks they can literally make or break the coastal team’s chances, while a final trip to Newlands to face their arch-enemies will also play a massive role in the Stormers chances of taking the conference.
Apart from that, the introduction of the wild card playoffs means that jockeying for positions will play an important part to miss say, a visit to Brisbane or Christchurch for a playoff against the the top teams in one of the other conferences.
The best case scenario for one of the chasing teams is that, if they don’t manage to win the conference, they end up in a position where the playoff is in South Africa, therefore negating the home ground advantage somewhat.
The Stormers have a tough tour, but whether or not they self-destruct lies solely in their own hands as they face two potentially tricky games against the Chiefs and Blues in their New Zealand leg.
Following that, the matches against the Brumbies and Rebels should be targeted for points as both sides have not been up to the standard in this year’s competition. After that, a potentially tricky match against the Cheetahs awaits in Bloemfontein, and Naka Drotske’s men would love nothing more than to upset reputations and title aspirations.
The games between the Sharks and Bulls next week certainly could shape the South African conference, and even do the Stormers a favour, if the Bulls are able to continue their home run momentum they have had in the past few years.
While in the past the Bulls have been the pace setters, they are now an ominous shaping factor in the competition, and while they have been written off so many times before, they will relish the power to control their own destiny.
All of this of course depends on whether they give themselves a chance this weekend against the Rebels. A slip-up, another shock loss and the focus may shift from competition points to the World Cup.
The Bulls know they are in the last-chance saloon, to coin a cliché and how many times haven’t we seen that a Bulls team with their backs against the wall is a dangerous one.
But questions still abound whether or not they still have the firepower, the physical aspect and the game plan to beat their more fancied South African rival franchises.
The Bulls have other tricky games to negotiate - the Cheetahs and Waratahs are all on their way to Pretoria, but it is certain their clashes against the Stormers and Sharks will determine the face of the South African representatives for the playoffs.
It’s been a long time since the Bulls were underdogs, similarly so for the Sharks and Stormers wearing the favourites tag.
Either way, forget the excitement thus far in the competition, by all accounts, the drama has only just begun.