Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town – Victories for the Brumbies and Crusaders in Super Rugby matches on Friday have tightened the mid-table logjam in Super Rugby ... but at the same time given a glimmer of fresh hope to the playoffs bids of South African sides the Sharks and Stormers.
It remains desperately unlikely that either coastal side will be able to charge strongly enough in the last few rounds to sneak into the top six, although stranger things have happened and it is at least mathematically still possible that one of them – both would really be the stuff of fantasy! – can make it.
Both teams probably got the results elsewhere they sought, as the Crusaders rather fortuitously edged the Waratahs 23-22 in Christchurch and the Brumbies held off a late surge by the Hurricanes in Canberra to record a 30-23 win.
The outcomes meant that at the very least the Sharks and Stormers, though still below both of Friday’s losing outfits, are within striking distance of overhauling them.
Tenth-placed, and having banked four bye points this weekend, the Sharks have 38 points from 13 games whilst the Stormers in eleventh have 34 from 12, although a full-house win from their home clash with the Kings on Saturday (17:05) would see them leapfrog their domestic rivals to 39.
Earning “maximum” may be a tall order given the really grim weather forecast for the Western Cape, suggesting heavy rain at Newlands that will make attractive rugby – and by extension a four-try bonus point – difficult.
Still, with two games in hand over the Waratahs, the Stormers only trail the eighth-placed side from Sydney by six points.
At the moment another Australian team, the Reds, occupy the last berth in the playoffs zone (sixth) with 45 points from 14 games, so things would get especially interesting for a few teams below them if they were to be upset at home by the unpredictable Rebels on Saturday – keep in mind that the Queenslanders have just completed the fatiguing journey home from South Africa where they suffered successive losses.
On the plus side for the Reds, they and the Cheetahs – who have slipped one notch for the time being to fifth after the Crusaders’ win – are the only two teams left who are yet to bag four further points for a bye round.
Make no mistake, few astute punters will be having a flutter on either of the Sharks or Stormers getting into the finals series, given that they need dashing conquests (preferably all of the five log-point variety) in all remaining games between them and also for several results elsewhere to go conveniently their way.
In 2012, 59 points was the requirement to qualify for the last six in the tournament, and in 2011 it was 57.
The very maximum the Sharks can get to now is 53, while the Stormers could hit 54: even that would require a dramatic shedding of the inconsistency that has stalked both sides, and it must also be considered that these are two of the most try-shy sides in Super Rugby this year.
But there has also been a healthier trend toward strength versus strength in 2013, with only the Highlanders real whipping boys with 11 losses from 12 fixtures thus far – it means greater scope for an unprecedented bun-fight between a host of sides to crack the playoffs.
Those ranks do, despite the cynicism likely from some observers, still include the Sharks and Stormers as things stand.
*The Sharks still have to play the Blues and Kings at home and Bulls away, and the Stormers tackle the Kings, Cheetahs and Bulls at home and Kings away.*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing