Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town – If the Lions, losing finalists for two successive seasons, are to go third time lucky in Super Rugby 2018, they can aim for the title safe in the knowledge that their ordinary-season roster is among the most favourable of the four South African teams.
But while they ought to have no special reason to complain, near-neighbours and three-time past champions the Bulls, who will go into battle under John Mitchell’s guiding hand for the first time, are arguably the least kindly served by the itinerary dished out by SANZAAR earlier this week.
Sharks and Stormers? Probably somewhere in between, as next year’s trimmed, 15-team tournament mercifully does away with the two-year-long system, featuring 18 sides, where our franchises (six at the time) dubiously either played New Zealand or Australian teams as an annually alternating bunch in the pre-knockout phase.
Although still far from perfect, the rejigged template at least returns a better dose of fairness and legitimacy.
Here is our assessment, in descending order from suggested best schedule to worst, of the programmes facing the four SA franchises in 2018:
1. LIONS (Most log points of all teams last season, losing finalists)
Take a look at those first five games or so (including four of them in Johannesburg and a short trip up the highway to Pretoria) and you can see the potential for the 2016 and 2017 losing finalists to get a nice, fresh head of steam as they attempt to go one better next season.
By the time things start to get a bit more difficult on paper, flying flanker Jaco Kriel should be handily ready to infuse their ranks after his long surgical lay-off, too.
Of the quartet of SA teams, the Lions are also one of the two required to fly long-haul only twice in the pre-knockout campaign rather than three times, as they play the weak Sunwolves at home, meaning just a four-match tour of Australasia and a once-off challenge in Buenos Aires (might they go full-strength there for a change?).
A bye in the second-last round isn’t ideal, but finishing with a home derby against the Bulls is a relative comfort if there’s still vital log-points accumulation work to do for them at the climax …
Their roster: Sharks (h), Jaguares (h), Bulls (a), Blues (h), Sunwolves (h), Jaguares (a), Crusaders (h), Stormers (h), bye, Waratahs (a), Reds (a), Hurricanes (a), Highlanders (a), Brumbies (h), Stormers (a), June recess, Sharks (a), bye, Bulls (h). Don’t play: Chiefs, Rebels.
2. STORMERS (6th most log points last season)
Robbie Fleck’s charges will hope for a fast start at Newlands against the Jaguares, and if a tour of Australasia (only three games, minds) straight afterwards might be a little early for their liking, it does mean they’ve “klapped” the majority of their time-zone travels quickly and can contemplate generally more familiar environs for a lot longer afterwards.
Playing the Bulls and Lions away in successive weekends for rounds seven and eight is a bit of a Highveld lung-buster, it is true, but then a bye looms for them to restore breath.
Having a bye on the very last weekend is inconvenient, so they will doubtless wish to have clinched any qualifying deals ahead of that -- including just a few days earlier when they host coastal rivals the Sharks in what might be an “eight-point swing” type of affair in the conference scrap.
Also in the Capetonians’ favour is that both of the two teams they steer clear of in ordinary season (2016 champions the Hurricanes, plus the Brumbies) were playoffs qualifiers this year.
Their roster: Jaguares (h), Waratahs (a), Crusaders (a), Highlanders (a), Blues (h), Reds (h), Bulls (a), Lions (a), bye, Sharks (a), Rebels (h), Bulls (h), Chiefs (h), Sunwolves (a), Lions (h), June recess, Jaguares (a), Sharks (h), bye. Don’t play: Hurricanes, Brumbies.
3. SHARKS (7th most log points last season)
Unless they can register an opening -round shock (at least that’s what it probably would be, come the time) by beating the Lions at Emirates Airline Park in a humdinger derby, the Sharks will start just a bit on the back foot.
That is because round two sees them experiencing a bye, so there is just the threat that first opportunity for log points only comes a week later when the Waratahs come to Durban, with some compatriots in the competition possibly already sitting pretty on eight to 10 points.
Like the Lions, Robert du Preez’s outfit only have two overseas treks, and the four-game one in Australia and New Zealand doesn’t look as formidable as it might: they could have a good sniff in all three ahead of the closing game in the “Cake Tin” venue of the Hurricanes.
In the crucial, three-match final straight, following the traditional June break for Test combat, the Sharks have successive stiff derby hurdles against the Lions and Stormers.
On the plus side, they duck in 2018 the defending title-holders, the Crusaders.
Their roster: Lions (a), bye, Waratahs (h), Sunwolves (h), Brumbies (a), Rebels (a), Blues (a), Hurricanes (a), Bulls (h), Stormers (h), bye, Highlanders (h), Bulls (a), Chiefs (h), Jaguares (a), June recess, Lions (h), Stormers (a), Jaguares (h). Don’t play: Crusaders, Reds.
4. BULLS (15th most log points last season)
Long-suffering Bulls fans with a sense of humour might look at the 2018 sked this way: we’re guaranteed not to lose on the first weekend.
Yes, they begin with a bye, which is also disadvantageous because it means a smaller chance of welcome “recharge” at more advanced stages of the gruelling competition.
Then home games against the Hurricanes and Lions don’t offer massive likelihoods of success for the painstakingly rebuilding franchise, before they are off to play the Reds, Chiefs and Crusaders in foreign territory.
So this country’s worst performers in 2017 - even with the Cheetahs and Kings still in the mix then - run the risk of being close to dead in the water well before the halfway mark is reached, unless Mitchell works early wonders with his pretty limited (right now anyway) personnel.
It hardly helps that the Bulls don’t get to lock horns with traditionally the most ordinary NZ outfit in recent times, the Blues.
Their roster: Bye, Hurricanes (h), Lions (h), Reds (a), Chiefs (a), Crusaders (a), Stormers (h), bye, Sharks (a), Rebels (h), Highlanders (h), Stormers (a), Sharks (h), Jaguares (a), Brumbies (h), June recess, Sunwolves (a), Jaguares (h), Lions (a). Don’t play: Blues, Waratahs.
*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing