Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town - The prospect of three South African teams reaching the six-team playoffs phase of Super Rugby has receded ... with the Sharks now feeling the elimination heat.LOGS: Latest standings in Super Rugby
A trio of our teams making the cut and monopolising the finals series looked fairly feasible ahead of the resumption of the competition this weekend, but one result in particular - the Hurricanes unexpectedly pipping the Crusaders in Christchurch on Saturday - has lessened the likelihood of that happening.
Whilst they gratefully bagged four points for a bye in the latest round, the Sharks find themselves in eighth spot on the overall table and locked on 49 points with one team from each of the other conferences, the Hurricanes and Reds.
It would have suited their purposes far better had the higher-riding Crusaders instead clinched their home derby, simultaneously badly denting the Hurricanes’ prospects, and it has become absolutely imperative now for Keegan Daniel and company to knock over the Bulls in an appetising clash at Mr Price Kings Park on Friday night.
If they fail to do that, there is every chance that their final ordinary-season fixture against the Cheetahs, also in Durban, will be academic.
As for the Bulls, their thumping 40-24 Loftus victory over the Cheetahs on Saturday evening (the game was done and dusted before the visitors staged a late rally to give the scoreboard a slightly closer look than it probably deserved) means they can probably afford to lose to the Sharks and still make the cut by beating the Lions back home in their last outing.
But they will target a Durban win themselves, of course, because if they do prevail there is still a chance, however slim, that they can overhaul the Stormers and steal the SA conference honours - they are currently four points behind, with each team still having to play two games.
Considering their injury crisis, which was an influence in their flirting with disaster against the Lions at Newlands on Saturday before managing to close the deal, the Stormers winning in Bloemfontein next weekend cannot be simply taken for granted against the happy-go-lucky Cheetahs.
Indeed, Allister Coetzee’s charges have to also be just a little mindful of the Brumbies’ continued advance under the tutelage of Jake White: the Aussie side scored a bonus-point win over the Force in Perth and could still earn a top-two spot.
Although it is reasonably stiff ask, full-house victories for them over the Waratahs (away) and Blues (home) in their remaining games would propel them to a 64-point finish - from a Stormers point of view, heaven forbid, such an outcome would put the Brumbies out of reach of them if they fail to earn a single point in the Free State.
The Stormers close off their campaign with an “easy” game on paper against the Melbourne Rebels at Newlands, but must certainly avoid a heavy loss in their last SA derby before that.
If the Brumbies were to sneak up and finish second overall it would, of course, rob the Stormers of a guaranteed passage to a home semi-final.
Still, the Cape side will probably pat themselves on the back for the time being, for digging deep yet again to retain a winning habit despite the combined effects of the injury jinx and also a flu bug that played some pre-match havoc this weekend.
They must still be considered heavy favourites to win the conference for a second time in succession.
Once again they could not quite land what would have been a maiden four-try bonus point for 2012, but it also has to be kept in mind that if they were to end level on points with the Bulls, say, their superior tally of victories in ordinary season - that situation cannot be altered now - would ensure their staying ahead.
As for the Bulls, even if they were to end as conference runners-up, they are quite promisingly placed now for their first playoffs game to at least be a home one, sparing them another of those dreaded overseas passages for at least a week.
Next weekend’s programme (all kick-offs SA time):
Chiefs v Crusaders (09:35), Reds v Highlanders (11:40), Sharks v Bulls (19:10)Saturday:
Blues v Force (09:35), Waratahs v Brumbies (11:40), Cheetahs v Stormers (15:00), Lions v Rebels (17:05)Bye: HurricanesRemaining games for top eight sides:
1. Chiefs (P14, 62 points): Crusaders (h), Hurricanes (a)
2. Stormers (P14, 58 points): Cheetahs (a), Rebels (h)
3. Brumbies (P14, 54 points): Waratahs (a), Blues (h)
4. Bulls (P14, 54 points): Sharks (a), Lions (h)
5. Crusaders (P14, 52 points): Chiefs (a), Force (h)
6. Hurricanes (P15, 49 points): bye, Chiefs (h)
7. Reds (P14, 49 points): Highlanders (h), Waratahs (h)
8. Sharks (P14, 49 points): Bulls (h), Cheetahs (h)*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing