Bulls, Cheetahs can pull clear

    2013-04-21 10:23

    Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer

    Cape Town - To an increasing extent, the South African conference in Super Rugby is looking like an eccentric professor’s study ... cluttered.

    There are pros and cons to the situation, as the ordinary-season programme has effectively hit its midway mark - nine of the 15 teams have now completed eight of their 16 games, although four have played nine and two have played seven.

    It means that as many as four of the SA sides can presently be considered in the realistic hunt for playoffs spots, although the logjam is also having the effect of keeping our teams away from the prime slots at the very top of the overall table.

    GALLERY: Kings v Bulls

    GALLERY: Sharks v Cheetahs

    VIDEO: Kings v Bulls, highlights

    VIDEO: Sharks v Cheetahs, highlights

    On Saturday, both the Cheetahs and Bulls advanced at different times to the helm of the conference, both unseating the previously supreme Sharks who have slipped two rungs.

    By the end of the round the Bulls led the local field by a point from the Cheetahs, courtesy of their cherry-on-top, late four-try bonus point in a thumping 34-0 win against the Kings in Port Elizabeth that silenced most of a spirited crowd of 46,000 at Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium.

    The Sharks have slipped to third, and seventh overall, after their lacklustre, bumbling home reverse to the Cheetahs, which sees them leave on their four-match overseas leg debilitated by successive defeats and a mounting injury toll.

    Probably their biggest concern surrounds Springbok loosehead prop Beast Mtawarira, who picked up a calf strain and was not expected to leave with the initial tour party - the Sharks could have a huge problem at No 1 in the short term as Dale Chadwick remains a long-term casualty and Allan Dell, the 21-year-old novice named among the travel group, is reportedly also labouring with an injury.

    The Sharks’ embarrassing drought in the try column also continued in the 12-6, rain-marred reverse at Kings Park: they have not dotted in any of their last three matches; whilst five of their eight games in total have not produced one to their credit.

    It is hardly the ideal way to enter their challenging first Australasian fixture, against champions the Chiefs in Hamilton on Saturday.

    It is difficult to decide whether the Chiefs also coming off successive losses - to the Reds and Waratahs - can be considered a good thing for Keegan Daniel’s troops.

    The men from Waikato may only be more hell-bent on restoring winning ways against opponents who will have flown through time zones for the encounter.

    The Bulls and Cheetahs were big winners this weekend in every respect, even though the now conference-leading Bulls effectively remain fifth overall on a pure log-points basis, although tournament rules have them third because each group leader automatically commands a top-three perch.

    What the two Highveld sides have in their favour for the next four weeks, especially, is a favourable schedule that could see either - or both - pull clear of the congestion in the SA conference.

    That period includes a bye for both sides, where four points are guaranteed, and they also boast only home games in the period at Loftus and the Free State Stadium respectively.

    The Bulls will entertain the Waratahs, Hurricanes and basement Highlanders during the stint, while the Cheetahs host the Kings, Hurricanes and Reds.

    Naka Drotske’s charges will particularly appreciate their “off” week after the Kings game (Saturday, 19:10) as they have not experienced a bye yet and put in another really gutsy, wholehearted effort to upset the Sharks in their own stamping ground.

    The golden opportunity for these two teams to prosper over the next month or so is only enhanced by the fact that the Sharks and Stormers, who were arguably the most fancied two SA teams ahead of this year’s competition, will both be campaigning abroad for its duration.

    Never mind the fact that the two biggest coastal franchises traditionally travel quite well in Super Rugby: it is a lot more difficult to bank wins consistently in New Zealand and Australia, and excited talk in some circles that the re-emerging Stormers could even bank a unique clean sweep might quickly be proved wide of the mark.

    What cannot be denied is that the Capetonians, who were inactive this weekend ahead of their first tour assignment against the unpredictable Hurricanes, will have looked on domestic events with some satisfaction.

    They will know that they are right back in the hunt, on paper at least, for the conference honours ahead of the playoffs: while fourth on the local log and 11th overall, they have a game in hand over the Bulls and are only four points adrift of them.

    Unlike the Sharks, who have a seemingly stiffer tour agenda, the Stormers are also in the beneficial position of seeing several seasoned customers filtering back into the plans imminently, rather than injury woes going the other way.

    There can be no question that the SA team of the weekend was the Bulls, who played with power, precision and welcome enterprise in the first half against the unsuspecting Kings, even if they ran out of steam to an extent for longish tracts of the second before a key second wind at the death.

    Young Jan Serfontein is looking more and more the real deal at inside centre, though he benefited hugely from Morne Steyn mixing up his game to an illuminating extent at flyhalf - the experienced Bok pivot was centrally involved in several thrilling attacking plays and currently looks a hungrier, edgier customer than Pat Lambie does for the Bok No 10 jersey in June.

    Mind you, the collective concern that the Sharks may just be “heading south” at a rate of knots can hardly be helping Test incumbent Lambie’s own game right now ...

    Next week’s fixtures (home teams first, all times SA):

    Friday: Hurricanes v Stormers, 09:35; Reds v Blues, 11:40. Saturday: Chiefs v Sharks, 09:35; Brumbies v Force, 11:40; Bulls v Waratahs, 17:05; Cheetahs v Kings, 19:10. Sunday: Crusaders v Rebels, 06:05. Bye: Highlanders.

    *Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing 

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