Bloemfontein - The Cheetahs may have been rightly peeved by their failure to grab a four try bonus point in their victory over the Kings, but it may still be them that are in the pound seats in the South African conference of Super Rugby as they head into their first bye week.
According to the supersport.com website, a bonus point try, which was on for all money as they had a lot of time to score their fourth and were over the Kings’ line at least once in that last half hour, would have been enough to put them top of the conference ahead of the Bulls, who weren’t helped by the referee in their struggling win over the Waratahs at Loftus on the same day.
The studio comments men were right in pointing out that the Waratahs seemed to be off-side almost the entire game without being pinged by the match official. It did play a role in keeping the Bulls from firing on all cylinders like they had the previous weekend in Port Elizabeth. However, the Bulls do remain something of an enigma in the sense that they continue to blow hot and cold.
While the Cheetahs weren’t great either, the Kings are a difficult team to play against when they get their defensive game together, like they did in the second half at the Free State Stadium. And the Cheetahs have also played 10 consecutive games, which was frankly a ridiculous expectation from the fixtures scheduling committee, and they did appear to be blowing air bubbles as fatigue set in late in the game.
The point is though that they still have two byes to come, starting this week, when they bank the automatic four log points to take them to 35 log points. The Bulls should beat the Hurricanes at Loftus this Saturday, but they still have to go out and do it if they want to pass the Cheetahs.
The DHL Stormers look to be back in range and with more players coming back from injury this week you get the sense that at last they may be making that move up the table that they need to do if they want to challenge. However, they’ve had both byes, which equates to eight automatic log points that the Cheetahs still have to claim. That effectively means the Cheetahs are 11 points ahead of them, and not just the current three.
The Cheetahs did well to get through the potential banana peel that presented itself this past week as after their crucial win over the Sharks the previous week, this was a game that the Cheetahs of past seasons might have lost. That they didn’t was down to their excellent ability to strike off turn-over ball as well as the much improved defensive organisation and aggression that kept the Kings tryless.
They have seven wins in 10 starts and that’s a good harvest, one that should definitely ensure they remain in conference contention until the final weeks. And how interesting the conference battle is becoming too, with both the Sharks and the Stormers still definitely in the frame after this past weekend!
For my money the Sharks’ game against the Chiefs could well be a turning point in their season even though it ended in defeat. It was almost a second string they started with as John Plumtree was clearly targeting the later matches in his selection, and you got the sense they would be happy with a bonus point.
In the end they were unfortunate – although that is not really the word for their skipper Keegan Daniel gave the extra bonus point away through sheer stupidity in the last move of the game – not to bank a second point, with the Chiefs kicking a penalty to ensure they won by more than seven.
The point though is that for the first time this season the Sharks started to get the aspects of their game that made them strong last year all working at the same time, and the anticipated return of JP Pietersen and Lwazi Mvovo will resolve an ongoing headache as well as bring more confidence to the back-play. The passes that were knocked on in the wet at Kings Park the week before suddenly started to stick against the Chiefs, and that is a good sign, as was the attitude shown by the young Sharks in their brave fightback.
At the top of the overall log, the Brumbies continue to motor on and look the team to beat, although it needs to be remembered that the Australians started Super Rugby a week earlier than everyone else, and that does skew the log a bit.
The Brumbies have the same number of wins from the same number of games as the Cheetahs, and yet they are nine points ahead of the sixth placed Cheetahs. Why is that? Take a closer look and you will see it is because the Brumbies have already had both their byes, accounting for eight of the nine log points difference. And by that reckoning the Bulls, who still have one bye to come, are just four log points behind the overall leaders.
Credit must be given to the teams in the Australian conference though for the improved standard of play that has been delivered this year. The Rebels nearly shocked the Crusaders, are really blowing hot and cold at the moment, in Christchurch on Sunday, although of the all the conferences the Aussie one is the one where you can say with some assurance that it is just a two horse race.
On that point, the Reds’ narrow win over the Blues in an excellent game near the start of the weekend was of huge significance, with the Auckland based team now having no option but to beat the Stormers this coming Friday if they want to stay in touch with the Chiefs.