Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town - If the South African conference in Super Rugby was a minibus taxi, it would be stopped by a suitably observant traffic cop for overloading ... especially above the front wheels.
The logjam in the group only intensified after the weekend’s programme, with a mere four points separating the Bulls at the top from the Stormers in fourth place, with the Cheetahs and Sharks fitted snugly in between.
It remains the tightest of the three conferences: in New Zealand seven points divide the top four and in Australia a gaping 20.
As things stand, you could probably also argue that as many as 11 teams overall retain realistic aspirations of cracking the six-team finals series, though the Waratahs at the rear of that particular pack could really do with a victory over the Kings in Port Elizabeth next weekend to stay in touch after getting no log points at all out of their trip to Loftus this weekend.VIDEO: Cheetahs v Kings, highlights\GALLERY: Super Rugby - Week 11
Which country will eventually boast the 2013 champions remains anyone’s guess, with four sides each from South Africa and New Zealand still scrapping hard, and three from Australia - although the last-named nation does boast the Brumbies at the top of the overall pile and the Reds also very healthily placed.
Jake White’s Canberra-based side have been the most consistent thus far, with just one loss to show from 10 outings, although can they really be said to yet possess that “championship aura” which once characterised, say, the Crusaders of their heyday and, to a lesser extent, the Bulls?
The South African challenge is an enigmatic one, because while it is great in many ways to see the landscape so even among a quartet of honours-chasing franchises, the threat remains that our eventual conference winners may be the ones not to bank a guaranteed home semi-final given the dog-eat-dog nature of the domestic battle.
Just as there could be a well-stocked SA representation in the playoffs - three teams made the cut last season - there is also the risk of notably few.
Indeed, South African teams watching local rivals do battle with overseas outfits will often be torn in coming weeks between whether to wish their compatriots well or seek a result that goes the other way.
For instance, when the Blues (level on 32 points with the Bulls) entertain the Stormers on Friday, what is a better outcome for Pierre Spies’s side? And when the very Bulls go into battle a day later against the Hurricanes in Pretoria, where do the Stormers’ secret wishes lie, given that they are level on 28 points with the team from Wellington but also wrestling for good conference status?
Whatever people’s reservations about the expanded Super Rugby competition, there is a surprisingly strong element of “strength versus strength” this year, just another example on Sunday having been the un-trumpeted Rebels so nearly knocking over the Crusaders in Christchurch.
In purely SA terms, the Cheetahs can arguably be said to have still clung to the aces after the latest round of fixtures.
Captain Adriaan Strauss took a surprisingly cautious - given his team’s admirable adventurous streak - decision to go for posts with a close-range penalty in the fourth quarter of their 26-12 home victory over the Kings on Saturday, when they’d already scored three tries and were pushing for a four-try bonus point they never managed to bank.
But just winning their fatiguing 10th game without a break was a satisfying enough outcome, and now they enter an overdue bye weekend - with its guaranteed four points - in pretty fine fettle in positional terms.
They are a flimsy one point behind the conference-leading Bulls, who had to dig deep to put away the Waratahs, and are the only team yet to receive both sets of bye points.
That is a handy ally (the last batch of four points will come in the final round, when the Cheetahs are the only team not playing), coupled with the fact that Naka Drotske’s charges have only two further matches away from Bloemfontein - the return against the Kings, plus the Stormers at Newlands.
By contrast, the Sharks and Stormers both still have four away games to contemplate - including a potentially definitive three each still abroad - and the Bulls three matches not at Loftus, even if they are also safely done with overseas travel.
Thus far the Cheetahs have also not experienced anything like the injury angst suffered by the big two coastal franchises, and perhaps their main drawback as we inch toward the playoffs is that they will increasingly be venturing into virgin territory for them - will their nerve hold?
While the Stormers are in a relatively happy position of having several big-name players gradually returning to duty at present, the Sharks may have another couple of woes to chew on: there seems a good chance that scrumhalf Cobus Reinach’s Australasian tour may be over (ankle problem), whilst Frans Steyn’s citing issue also hangs in the air.
A ray of light from back home, nevertheless, was Willem “Bone Collector” Alberts coming through an hour of a Vodacom Cup match forcefully, by all accounts, so he may rejoin the senior mix very shortly.Next round of matches (home teams first, all times SA):Friday:
Blues v Stormers, 09:35; Rebels v Chiefs, 11:40. Saturday:
Highlanders v Sharks, 09:35; Force v Reds, 11:40; Kings v Waratahs, 17:05; Bulls v Hurricanes, 19:10. Sunday:
Brumbies v Crusaders, 07:05. Bye: Cheetahs.*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing