Advantage Bulls for top spot?
Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town - A thrilling Super Rugby ordinary-season run-in to determine who ends top of the overall table is in prospect when the bulk of hostilities in the competition resumes at the end of June.
Current leaders the Chiefs, champions in 2012, and three-time tournament winners the Bulls who trail them by just two points in second, remain the likeliest occupants of the guaranteed home semi-final slots once the conference phase is wrapped up on July 13.
That is despite the fact that two all-Australian matches do take place as the lone Super Rugby activity next weekend - the Brumbies entertain the Rebels on Friday (11:40 SA time) and the Force tackle the Waratahs on Sunday (08:05).
It will probably mean that the Brumbies leapfrog the Bulls into the top two for the remainder of the month, but having played two extra matches by then and with no more byes to their credit.
So the chances are rosy that the Bulls will eventually finish in home semi territory anyway, and that we are in for a straight slug-out between them and the Chiefs for overall supremacy.
In the Chiefs’ favour is their two-point present advantage, courtesy of netting two extra bonus points although both teams have won 10 and lost three of their 13 games each thus far.
But the Bulls, who earned a praiseworthy triumph over compatriots the Cheetahs in Bloemfontein on Saturday (even though they could not quite secure a fourth try) have an ace up their own sleeves: two of their three derby games remaining are at Loftus while the men from Waikato must play two of three all-NZ fixtures away.Pierre Spies
and company are yet to tackle, in order, the Kings and Sharks at home and finally the Stormers in Cape Town.
The Chiefs complete their Waikato Stadium programme against the Hurricanes, before rounding off their campaign on the road, against the Crusaders and Blues respectively.
Already you can bet that Bulls fans are eyeing that crucial Chiefs clash with the Crusaders with unusual levels of affection for the Canterbury side, one of many in the mid-table region scrapping desperately to make the playoffs cut.
Should the seven-time champions prevail in that humungous Christchurch showdown, it could be the window of opportunity the Bulls seek to jump ahead of the Chiefs.
The Bulls’ run-in does look a trifle easier, especially given that a trip to Loftus awaits the rookie Kings, who lost 34-0 to the Bulls in Port Elizabeth and will be tipped to again concede a “maximum” five-point haul to their hosts on the Highveld - the newcomers are now only two points clear of the bottom-placed Highlanders at the foot of the log and seem certainties now
for the domestic promotion/relegation clash with the Lions.
If the Bulls’ last-day fixture against arch-rivals the Stormers at Newlands looks a toughie, at least the SA conference leaders know it is the very last game on the ordinary-season roster - they will know exactly what they need to do to ensure the best possible finish on the table for them.
Saturday’s victory in the Free State was the Bulls’ seventh in succession, so they are on a roll in that regard and continue to go about their attacking play with pace and purpose, even if precision and concentration sometimes deserts them for significant periods of matches.
A feeling remains in some circles that far and away their best chance of winning the title for the first time since 2010 is to tee up an all-Pretoria itinerary in the knockout phase, just as the Chiefs, for instance, will be much less likely to be confidently tipped for trophy success if they have to come to South Africa for the August 3 final.Jake White
’s Brumbies cannot yet be written off for second or even first - both their remaining matches against the Rebels and Force look winnable - although they are running out of games at a faster rate than either of the best-faring New Zealand and South African outfits.*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing