Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town – Same old, same old … South Africa will have exactly the same pair of home quarter-finalists and the identical away side, too, in Super Rugby 2017.
In a reflection of the shortcomings of the multi-conference system, it is already confirmed now -- even as we enter the traditional June recess during ordinary season – that the Lions and Stormers will host last-eight dates at Emirates Airline Park and Newlands respectively, and the Sharks again have to tackle theirs away.
All that is outstanding is to establish who their various opponents will be.
The situation, sealed this weekend, is a carbon copy of 2016, when the Lions beat the Crusaders in Johannesburg in that phase before moving further onward to a losing final in Wellington, the Stormers were quickly, unceremoniously bundled out by the Chiefs in a nasty 21-60 outcome, and the Sharks similarly trounced by eventual champions the Hurricanes in awful conditions at the Cake Tin.
Again the Stormers, albeit notably hot and cold, are guaranteed to top Africa Conference 1, whilst the Lions will be clear-cut winners of Africa 2, and domestic group rivals the Sharks will bag the extra, more difficult away quarter-final ticket on offer to third best-performing “African” side from either of those two pools.
Following their well-deserved victory over the Stormers in a slightly hollow-feel derby in damp Durban on Saturday, Robert du Preez’s charges now cannot end anywhere but second in Africa 2, even with two pre-knockout matches left.
Nor can any second place-finishing team from the especially unconvincing Africa 1 outdo them from here for log points -- not by a long way.
The Lions, courtesy of their latest vibrant triumph on Sunday, where the Kings were outclassed 54-10 despite the hosts playing most of the match with 14 men, finally put beyond any doubt table-topping status in their group.
They have 56 points from 13 matches, an unassailable gap of 14 points over the Sharks (42) with two games each to go (including against each other at Kings Park in the last round on July 15).
But that didn’t mean the Sharks’ yeoman efforts, especially through their rugged and well-organised defence, against the Stormers went entirely unrewarded: their win, coupled with the fast-fading Jaguares’ heavy home setback to the Brumbies a few hours later, meant the Argentineans (24 points, three games to play) can only get to a maximum of 39 points and are goners as far as the playoffs are concerned.
In spite of failing to even bank a losing bonus point in Durban, the Stormers (30 points from 12 games) are safe too, as Africa 1 winners.
The currently second-placed Cheetahs have only 16 points with two obligations remaining, although the Bulls in third (well beaten at home again by the Hurricanes on Saturday) have 15 with three fixtures in hand.
That means they could yet move – albeit massively unlikely – to 30 points, and end level with the Capetonians if Robbie Fleck’s charges (also hugely improbable) earn no log points at all in closing matches against the Cheetahs (away), Sunwolves (home) and Bulls themselves (away).
But the Stormers are home and dry anyway: tournament rules dictate that if teams end level on points, the first criterion for separating them is most wins.
The Stormers have banked seven victories and the Bulls three, so the latter side would only get to six even if they end their season with a flourish.
It is a disappointing, anticlimactic way for ordinary season to come to a close, at least as far as the South African-specific hostilities are concerned.
But there is still, of course, the far from irrelevant matter of seeing whether the buzzing Lions can finish ahead of all other teams in the competition, teeing up the great chance of a final in the Big Smoke.
They still cannot quite catch up to the remorseless, all-conquering Crusaders, who stay three points ahead of them.
But with two games left each, the Lions’ look the better shoes to be in when it comes to victory chances: their closing dates are against the Sunwolves at home and Sharks away, whereas the ‘Saders have NZ derby stinkers against the Highlanders (home) and Hurricanes (away).
Just one slip-up from the Crusaders and the Lions may well be ready to pounce into top spot.
*There are no further matches now involving South African sides until the weekend beginning June 30.
Next weekend’s fixtures (home teams first, all kick-offs SA time):
Friday: Blues v Reds, 09:35. Saturday: Crusaders v Highlanders, 04:35; Chiefs v Waratahs, 07:05; Brumbies v Rebels, 11:45; Force v Hurricanes, 13:55.
*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing