Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town – For the second year running in the South African
conference of Super Rugby, the intended last-day thrills and spills of derbies
will come with disappointingly limited stakes.
It is a reflection of the humble challenge being posed again
in playoffs terms by our collective group of five teams; across the Indian
Ocean it is no coincidence that there will be games of bigger importance at the
ordinary season climax in both the New Zealand and Australians conferences.
The two all-SA games on the Saturday roster for the closing
round of ordinary season – Bulls v Cheetahs at Loftus (17:05) and Sharks v
Stormers at Kings Park (19:10) – lack the kind of “do or die” element that franchise
marketers would have wished for.
Of course the Bulls’ PR machine, for instance, can hardly be
blamed for doing its best to summon interest in what it called in a media email
this week “the much-anticipated South African derby” against the Cheetahs.
Yes, these are fierce rivals of fairly long standing, but
this year the game carries far too much of a sloppy seconds feel – the once-touted
Bulls have just returned from a winless overseas tour which blew their top-six
chances right out of the water, whilst a Cheetahs team in the throes of
management and other transition has the dubious record at present of leaking
40-plus points in each of their last four matches and are already guaranteed
the conference wooden spoon.
So you’d like to be able to look to the night-time Durban
fixture for some domestic salvation; for a bit of a kick to it.
Regrettably, by the time it comes around -- as the very last
game of ordinary season anywhere -- there should also be notably little at
stake as far as the overall competition is concerned.
Unless both the Waratahs and Brumbies have lost home matches
to the Reds and Crusaders respectively earlier in the day, South Africa’s
already-assured conference winners the Stormers will have nothing of playoffs
relevance to drive them along in what is normally a coastal cracker.
Indeed, powerful noises from the Newlands-based camp early
this week only suggest that they intend fielding a XV that will be strongly
“second team” in makeup as they presume the requirement of a home extra
qualifier a week later – carefully cocooning big names for it -- and then
Under such circumstances, the cat could be placed among the
pigeons if they suddenly, unexpectedly discover during the afternoon that they
still have a shout at a home semi and must beat the Sharks to nip ahead of one
of the Aussie sides and end second overall instead of third.
You have to mischievously wonder whether a couple of “extra
seats” for more seasoned players may be booked for the flight up, in the event
that the derby carries greater importance at the eleventh hour and they don’t
want the run-on team to be quite as callow as initially compiled!
The likelier scenario at this stage remains that they will
take to Kings Park aware that the game has no impact on their final playoffs
It will be a shame, particularly as the out-of-contention
Sharks would have wished to tackle a fuller-strength Stormers combo in a game
that will mark the sentimental goodbyes of the Du Plessis brothers, Bismarck
and Jannie, and behemoth loose forward Willem Alberts.
The Sharks themselves lie 11th overall and cannot
either improve on that berth or be dragged down a peg or two, given the size of
the points gaps on both sides of them.
This weekend’s (probably) tame end to ordinary season in a
South African sense mirrors last year in most respects, and perhaps
appropriately: that was another campaign when only one side from our shores
made the playoffs – the Sharks – and also in third, the spot likely to be
occupied by the Stormers this time.
In the closing round of 2014, the Lions (who ended 12th)
played the 14th-placed Cheetahs and duly thumped them 60-25 in a
decidedly “hangover” type of clash, while in the feature game at Newlands the
Stormers – well out of the running and to finish 11th – were beaten
34-10 by the Sharks.
The visitors had still possessed a morsel of hope – but no
more than that – entering that derby that they might finish second, but needed
not only to score four tries but prevail by at least 35 points to nudge the
Crusaders out of second and grab a coveted home semi.
They gave it a brave crack, but fell short on both counts
(there were three tries to their credit) and would have been kicking themselves
afterwards that they really botched it a week earlier by losing to the Cheetahs
27-20 in Bloemfontein.
In an ideal world, most last-round derbies should carry the
promise of tension, raw brutality and high drama.
It’s a bit telling that South Africa faces a second year
when the stadiums hosting them may have a more hollow, echoing sound than we
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