Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town – The Stormers are the very dangerous common denominator in the remaining weeks of ordinary season for both of South Africa’s remaining title aspirants in Super Rugby 2014, the Sharks and Bulls.
One thing is sure: favours will rightly be non-existent when the out-of-the-running but now noticeably regrouping Capetonians tackle away and home derbies against the Sharks (the first in Durban on Saturday night) plus a Newlands date against the Bulls as the playoffs race hots up healthily across the three participating countries.
This is the first time since the advent of the conference system in 2011 that the Stormers enter the closing weeks with no chance of making the cut, after a campaign rocked by a poor start and an often appalling injury list.
But does this mean they will simply be willing easy-beats for two long-time great rivals of theirs? Dream on.
South African teams, bless them, are only ever interested in throwing the kitchen sink in derbies, regardless of the respective log positions of the protagonists.
The next round of matches will be no different, as the Stormers try to cash in on possible overseas tour fatigue by the table-topping Sharks at Kings Park, and the Bulls make the short haul to Johannesburg to tackle a losing-habit Lions team also just coming off their four-match programme abroad.
The Bulls stay in an immeasurably less stable position than Jake White’s charges, given that their chances of ending among the top six almost certainly require them to keep on winning in remaining games at Ellis Park, then also away to the Stormers after the Test window period and at home to the Rebels.
They have won three of their six remaining games since their winless return from Australasia a few weeks ago, so at least can say they are 50 percent of the way through their tough, late-charge requirement and still kicking.
Of course the Sharks have far loftier aspirations than the Bulls in terms of eventual placement for the playoffs: their admirable clean sweep of New Zealand triumphs against the Crusaders and Blues respectively means they stay well on track for their key goal of teeing up a possible home final.
Even after their heroics in the Land of the Long White Cloud, it is a tribute to the enduring strength-versus-strength nature of Super Rugby – despite its many tweaks – that the Sharks’ position at the top of the overall table is far from secure.
The new second-placed team, the Waratahs, are only five points adrift, the third-lying Crusaders seven and the fourth-placed Force eight ... and all three of those outfits have a game in hand.
Several more teams below that group need not yet give up all hope of ending among the top two, ahead of the finals series.
So the pressure stays very much on Bismarck du Plessis and company not to slip up before Super Rugby has its June break.
Certainly they will still warrant installation as favourites for their unusually late first clash of the year with the Stormers, but the very fact that the coastal derby features teams each with successive wins beneath their belts (the Stormers have comfortably beaten both the Force and Cheetahs at Newlands) makes for an especially exciting tussle in the Shark Tank.
The joke doing the rounds in Durban is that the Sharks should contemplate fielding 14 men from the start against the visitors, such has been their determination not to take a back step of late when reduced by one – or sometimes even two – of their ranks due to card offences.
Adversity does seem to bring out their best qualities, but they will also be well aware, after watching the Stormers hand the Cheetahs their heaviest loss of the season (not to mention the first time this season any team has registered “nil” on the board) that jet lag from the flight back across the Indian Ocean must somehow be staved off at all costs and they will need a full house of suitably fired-up personnel to repel the awakening men from the Western Cape.
Both the Sharks and Stormers are playing with good vigour and purpose at present, so we ought to get a better spectacle on Saturday than the terrible Kings Park clash in 2013, when the Sharks duly won a no-tries snorefest 12-6 and the early March humidity and slipperiness was a contributor to the anti-climax.
The Stormers earned revenge a few weeks later by bagging a 22-15 victory at Newlands, and matches between these two in recent times have traditionally been close.
Common sense, even as match-day team news for the weekend is still days away, suggests the Springbok-laden Sharks doing the business ... but there’s also the tantalising whiff of a “banana peel” possibility, isn’t there?Next weekend’s fixtures (home teams first, all kick-offs SA time):
Friday: Crusaders v Force, 09:35; Reds v Highlanders, 11:40. Saturday: Chiefs v Waratahs, 06:35; Blues v Hurricanes, 09:35; Brumbies v Rebels, 11:40; Lions v Bulls, 17:05; Sharks v Stormers, 19:10. Bye: Cheetahs.*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing