Sharks, Bulls seek SA favours
Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town – The Sharks and Bulls may be the only remaining South African contenders for the Super Rugby playoffs, but this weekend is also the last major opportunity on home soil for certain compatriots to meaningfully aid their push.
All five New Zealand conference sides, remarkably, are still very much in the hunt, whilst in Australia the tally is a healthy enough three – just the Rebels and hugely under-performing Reds are also-rans at this point.
One of the reasons the South African challenge is the leanest of the SANZAR trio this year is that our teams have fared so abjectly overseas, the Sharks’ triumph over the Rebels in Melbourne two rounds ago being the miserly lone success thus far.
But aggravating the situation has been the fact that in recent weeks the Australasian teams have come increasingly into their own for success on our turf after a shaky start.
Early in the campaign, remember, all of the Hurricanes, Blues and Reds returned from South Africa empty-handed.
But then the tide began to turn, and it started with defending champions the Chiefs earning freak, very high-scoring successive draws with the Bulls and Cheetahs – six points from a possible 10 was a satisfying booty for them as they headed back across the Indian Ocean.
It seemed to act as a catalyst for others to raid the country productively: the Crusaders beat both the Lions and Cheetahs, the Waratahs were thumped by the Sharks but bounced back to down the Stormers, the Highlanders humbled the Sharks and then were edged out by a mere point at Newlands, and the Force have begun their two-game visit on a high by beating the Cheetahs in Bloemfontein.
All of this has not been the best development for the log-leading Sharks, who have a host of challengers breathing uncomfortably down their necks now, or the Bulls, who are much further adrift in ninth but still kicking – and their outside chance of squeezing into the finals series could well depend on the outcomes of games at Newlands and Free State Stadium on Saturday.
The Loftus outfit have a bye, and their long-shot cause would be strongly helped if the Stormers, with only pride on the line for them, eclipse the Force and the Cheetahs, in a similar “dead” position playoffs-wise, somehow muster the mojo to see off the Brumbies – everybody knows they can on a good day.
If those results are achieved, the Sharks will also be hugely appreciative, regardless of whether or not they have achieved Mission Impossible of beating the in-form Crusaders in bogey city Christchurch earlier the same day.
It would have meant that at least a couple of the barking wolves had been beaten back from their door for another week.
After the latest round, the Brumbies will have just one more obligation in South Africa – a critical meeting with the Bulls in Pretoria – and that would complete the SA safari agendas of all NZ or Aussie teams still in contention for the playoffs, with just the out-of-the-picture Rebels yet to pack their bags for these climes.
South African sides have experienced immense amounts of pain abroad in 2014; two little bouts of “payback” in Cape Town and Bloemfontein this weekend would be a timely tonic.
Yes, Jake White and Frans Ludeke might even be inspired to raise a glass ...
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