Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town – South Africa’s Super Rugby title hopes in 2014 have been left squarely in the hands henceforth of the speed wobble-afflicted Sharks.VIDEO: Cheetahs start DANCE craze!
It is virtually impossible for any of the other four domestic conference sides to crack the top six and thus play in the finals series phase, even with six to seven rounds of matches remaining for them.
The situation sums up the widespread unease among the local rugby public about the dull game-plans and dubious skill levels being exhibited by the five franchises ... the Sharks now included, following successive tepid performances by them which include Friday’s damaging home defeat to the Highlanders.
Jake White’s charges, it must not be forgotten, do still head the overall standings and the possibility that they are simply having a weary, listless little spell in the notoriously gruelling competition cannot be ruled out.
But it is also a cold fact that at least seven teams beneath them will be believing that they can haul them in, not least because the Sharks are only about to begin their hazardous four-match overseas leg.
Bearing in mind that the South African wins scorecard abroad thus far reads “nought from 12”, those sides can hardly be blamed for any optimism in that regard.
For instance, even the eighth-placed Crusaders, nine points behind the men from Durban but with a game in hand, will believe vaulting them is a pretty realistic objective.
It is utterly imperative that the Sharks restore more normal service by seeing off the limited Melbourne Rebels at AAMI Park on Friday in what shapes up as the easiest of their quartet of tour fixtures on paper – another slip-up would only stir speculation that they peaked too early on a favourable first-half itinerary.
Failure to beat the Rebels might also do great harm to the tourists’ self-belief and, as with the three SA conference teams that have gone ahead of them thus far, turn the trip into more of an ordeal than an adventure.
The Brumbies, Australian leaders and second-placed overall, are only a point adrift of the Sharks although some consolation for Bismarck du Plessis and company is that they have a very taxing game on Saturday – away to the Crusaders.
So there is the chance for the Sharks to re-establish a bit of daylight on the log.
A poor tour could mean that even if the Sharks win the SA conference -- as they still should -- they might be pushed into a third-placed finish overall, meaning the frittering away of a treasured home semi-final and need to play a fatiguing, extra game in the finals series.
Meanwhile we can now write off, I believe, any prospect of a second South African side miraculously sneaking into the playoffs and that will mean the country’s lowest representation yet (in 2012 we had a giddy three qualifiers).
The trend since the advent of the conference system in 2011 has been for a minimum of 10 victories in ordinary season to be the requirement for qualification for the top six.
Even then, 10 is not always enough: it wasn’t in 2012, for instance, when both Brumbies and Hurricanes hit that tally but fell short, or 2011 when the Bulls got 10 victories but ended an agonising seventh, one off the finals series.
The most the second-best South African side at present, the Bulls, can get from here is nine, and that would require triumph every time in six matches back on our soil (starting with a home derby against the Cheetahs on Saturday evening).
Meanwhile the Lions, who have played one less game than their Highveld rivals, could, mathematically, still get to as many as 11 victories – but that means a spectacularly unlikely seven wins out of seven, including a clean sweep on their overseas leg.
Anyone prepared to throw a few bob on that happening?
Also hampering the side from Ellis Park, who must kick off their tour against defending champions the Chiefs at Hamilton, is that their bonus points tally stands at a fat zero.
The Cheetahs and Stormers, bringing up the rear both in the conference and overall, are complete goners in playoffs terms, and it was scant consolation for a lot of South Africans that they at least produced some good entertainment value in their wooden-spoon meeting in Bloemfontein.
Really frustrating has been the fact that the Bulls, three-time past champions, have seen win opportunities flicker quite brightly at times in all four of their matches in Australasia, yet ultimately paid a price every time for their utterly predictable, ponderous playing style.
There was little cheer, to my way of thinking, in hearing Victor Matfield speaking of “going back to basics” to try to restore winning ways for the Loftus franchise.
Being too “basic”, with an extraordinary reliance on a kick-chase game, is exactly their current problem, isn’t it?
Yes, the Bulls could get away in the past with a purposeful and methodical kicking strategy, but in those days they had infinitely greater, Springbok-laden grunt in their engine room and masterful, accurate string-pullers at Nos 9 and 10 in the shape of Fourie du Preez and Morne Steyn.
The Bulls of old, once they had done a bit of necessary “sagmaak” up front, were also greatly more prepared to spread the ball wide, often with crowd-pleasing effectiveness: these days if you are a Bulls wing you only catch a cold or simply challenge for pot-luck, 50-50 balls in the air.
It is numbing stuff to watch.
Mind you, the Bulls aren’t the only SA team sending us all to sleep ...
*Next weekend’s fixtures (home teams first, all kick-offs SA time):
Friday: Blues v Reds, 09:35; Rebels v Sharks, 11:40. Saturday: Crusaders v Brumbies, 06:35; Chiefs v Lions, 09:35; Waratahs v Hurricanes, 11:40; Stormers v Highlanders, 15:00; Bulls v Cheetahs, 17:05. Bye: Force.*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing