Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town – This may well go down as the weekend where the
South African hunt for the Super Rugby 2013 title finally shrank to just one
realistic contender ... the Bulls.
The Pretoria-based team aside, the last couple of weeks have
generally seen sides for our shores experience damaging defeats to overseas
foes, only increasing the danger that the country may have to settle for a mere
one representative in the finals series, down by two from last year’s three.
Friday night saw a big torpedo strike to the collective
South African hull as the Cheetahs -- fatally suckered into an up-tempo,
frantic-paced game by the gleeful Hurricanes – crashed in Bloemfontein.
It left Naka Drotske’s charges still clinging to a playoffs
berth in sixth overall (the cut-off mark at the end of ordinary season) but
with another band of New Zealand hopefuls, the Blues, level on points just
below them and with two matches in hand.
That tally included this weekend’s kick-off at home to the
Rebels, a game the Blues would be strongly tipped to win even though the result
was still awaited at the time of writing.
The going doesn’t get any easier for the Cheetahs, fighting
to make the knockout phase of Super Rugby for the first time in their history,
which is a disadvantage of its own.
With a more conservative game at times, they could have
knocked over the ‘Canes, who put up a splendid showing for team spirit after
their Loftus thrashing but, frankly, also look pretty unlikely title material.
So where that now places the Cheetahs is anyone’s guess: all
we know is that they have a very tough five-game run-in, starting with the
impressive Reds in Bloemfontein next Saturday, then followed by the Kings
(away) and a trio of pivotal games against the Bulls (home), Stormers (away)
and Blues (home) before a useful last-round bye and its associated four points.
Yes, they could still make the playoffs but probably now
only in a much less favourable wildcard slot.
They did travel surprisingly well this year, winning three
of their four matches abroad, but could they do so once more against a “cream”
side or two from Australasia, at the business end? The jury’s out.
Cheetahs players who did front up strongly to the
Hurricanes, like second-rower Lood de Jager and the demonically impressive
ball-carrier Coenie Oosthuizen, will have been especially gutted by the costly
defeat – if anything the outcome only further demonstrated why the hosts should
have kept things at closer quarters more often.
Flaky Friday for the South African challenge not too
surprisingly included the still weakened, split-personality Sharks surrendering
to the Reds in Brisbane, for a fifth loss on the trot which must, surely,
signal a point of no return for their 2013 aspirations.
Keegan Daniel’s outfit have now lost six games overall, and
although ludicrous optimists among their supporters could try to argue that
they sneaked a playoffs berth last year with as many reverses on their card, it
is desperately hard to see them suddenly winning all five remaining fixtures
and with a necessary mountain of bonus points too.
In 2012, they just made the cut with 59 points – all they
have after 11 of 16 games this year are 29, meaning that they need a further 30
to reach that mark again and it cannot happen, even if they get five-point
hauls from all five games as well as banking four further points for a remaining
bye (taking them to 58).
The Sharks have simply been too much off a “one half” side
in recent weeks, being particularly susceptible to listlessness and
incompetence in the first period of matches.
The Stormers will wish to believe they can still make the finals
series if they earn a morale-lifting victory over the Waratahs in their Sydney
game very shortly (11:40 SA time) but their hopes hang by almost as flimsy a
thread, when you really think about it.
So it is all down to the Bulls, barring some sort of miracle
elsewhere, to keep the SA flag flying suitably high this season.
Even they still have much work to do if they are to ensure a
Loftus-dominated run-in to a possible fourth title for the franchise, given
that the “home semi-final” berths are currently occupied by the Brumbies and
The Bulls will also know that they can expect no derby
charity from such teams as the Sharks (who they still have to play twice) or
Stormers, even if those two are wholly also-rans by the time they lock horns.
A gut feel, even with several ordinary-season rounds to go,
is that this will not be South Africa’s year in the competition unless the
Bulls can stage a Highveld final ...
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