Week of destiny for Bulls, Lions
CAPE TOWN — So the Stormers, in their less-than-pulsating way, are back at the top of a broadly inglorious South African conference in Super Rugby.
If the latest round did anything, it was probably only to serve as evidence of the decreasing likelihood that a team from these shores will win the competition — an achievement not yet managed since the change to the three-group system in 2011.
Simply, none shows the required ambition or sparkle, although Johan Ackermann’s Lions, with their more modest resources than certain others domestically, are the nearest to achieving a balanced, satisfyingly all-round kind of game.
It is almost as if the parochial internal scrap for conference bragging rights is somehow deemed sufficient; correct me if you believe I am wrong.
For the record, three SA teams — Stormers, Lions and Bulls — stay in the race on paper for the regional spoils, and also for the six-team playoffs phase, so optimists might protest “what’s the problem, then?”
Yet, as every week goes by, the prospect only balloons that New Zealand sides will significantly hog those half-dozen slots at the end of ordinary season, and their best ones also bank the most favourable positions from a finals series scheduling point of view for a realistic title charge.
The Hurricanes are so far ahead of the rest of the tournament pack it is almost ridiculous: they are all but confirmed as top-placed finishers with three rounds to go, and already mathematically certain now — as if we didn’t really know it already! — is that no South African or Australian team can eclipse them from here.
Either of the Chiefs or Highlanders (cruelly fourth and fifth respectively overall, though with more points than both leaders of the other conferences) still have the faintest of chances of hauling them in if the ’Canes implode inexplicably and register a massively unlikely two points or fewer from their next available 15 and one of the other two keeps landing big wins.
It can only be one because those very sides meet each other this Saturday, and the loser surrenders all hope of ending head of the pile.
So with a New Zealand franchise assured of best finish, the fight is on for what looks more and more like a “sloppy second” between the leading SA and Aussie sides to ensure that still very important second automatic home semi-final berth.
The second-placed Waratahs have their noses in front in that respect: they are three points clear of the third-placed Stormers after 13 matches each.
While Stormers should earn another win when the embattled Cheetahs, victims of successive home thumpings from the Highlanders and Lions, come to town next weekend, compatriots the Bulls and Lions face probable do-or-die weekends games against Australian opposition. — Sport24