Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town – The scene is perfectly set for Saturday’s mouth-watering Super Rugby clash in Bloemfontein (19:10) between the Cheetahs and Bulls, South Africa’s last two contenders for the 2013 title.
Perfect result if you’re a neutral in this country, wishing two teams from our shores to make the playoffs? How about a four-tries-each draw, earning both teams a healthy enough three points from the encounter?
Of course that is a highly unlikely outcome (there have only been three stalemates in the whole competition all season) and neither, in-form team will be eyeing anything less than triumph in a meeting of potentially massive relevance to final placements in ordinary season.
The Cheetahs have advanced to as high as fourth overall, courtesy of their bonus-point triumph over the Kings in Port Elizabeth, while their three-time title-winning visitors next weekend lie second after beating the Sharks in a bruising, typically unsubtle derby in Durban.
The Bulls are in one of the automatic home semi-final slots as things stand, and if they were to see off the Cheetahs in a round where the log-leading Chiefs (two points superior having played one extra game) will bank their final quota of four bye points, would keep the heat on the New Zealanders in a big way.
Apart from the guaranteed “victory” their off weekend will bring – that situation assures the Chiefs of leadership of the table going into the Test window period – the men from Waikato have tough remaining fixtures against the Hurricanes (home), Crusaders (away) and Blues (home).
Those are all derbies against teams currently still in the hunt for the playoffs, so charity ought to be in very short supply unless, for instance, the Blues have fallen out of contention by then.
The Bulls’ four-match run-in is hardly less severe, also featuring only domestic derbies (Cheetahs and Stormers away, Kings and Sharks home), although the Kings match at least shapes up as a relative banker – they have already thumped the Eastern Cape team 34-0 in their own backyard so the chances of a bonus-point win at Loftus must be deemed excellent.
Also, Pierre Spies’s outfit successfully negotiated some vital hard yards by pipping a desperate, committed Sharks side 18-16 at Kings Park: they won’t care much that it was a lousy, error-filled contest in the notorious nocturnal humidity there. Job done!
Considering that the Sharks threw the kitchen sink – particularly in a compelling scrummaging performance – yet could not cross the line for a win that might have kept them tenuously in the race, the Bulls will feel fairly confident that they should also clinch the return at Loftus on July 6.
History, meanwhile, points heavily to a Bulls triumph in Bloemfontein: they have never lost there in five Super Rugby clashes and occasionally romped home by large margins, like the 51-19 score in 2012 and 60-20 in 2008.
The Cheetahs were also beaten 26-20 in the first-round game in Pretoria in mid-April, and will be worried about the hamstring injury seemingly picked up by their attacking talisman Willie le Roux late in the victory over the Kings.
But statistics and other scenarios will count for nothing as the teams eyeball each other immediately ahead of Saturday’s humungous fixture – the Cheetahs are certainly showing a welcome ability to hang in there at the business end of the competition, despite some doubts that they would have the necessary staying power.
Here’s another thought to chew on: if Adriaan Strauss and company were to win, and even well, they could dramatically open up the possibility of still snatching the SA conference as they would have pulled either level with or very close to the Bulls at the top of it.
Meanwhile at the wrong end of the domestic ladder, a truly gutsy victory by the Stormers – fielding fourth or even fifth-choice players in certain positions due to injury – over the Reds at Newlands has hugely increased the likelihood that it will, as initially expected, be the Kings playing the Lions in the promotion/relegation scrap.
The Capetonians have moved 10 points clear of the Kings, and the last-named team may now have to try to beat the Stormers twice, an unlikely prospect, if they are to keep any hope of avoiding the wooden-spoon position.
The Sharks are also playing mostly for pride for the remainder of their campaign, but will bank four bye points this weekend to similarly put much greater daylight between themselves and the Kings.
Next weekend’s fixtures (home teams first, all times SA):
Friday: Crusaders v Waratahs, 09:35; Brumbies v Hurricanes, 11:40. Saturday: Highlanders v Blues, 09:35; Reds v Rebels, 11:40;
Stormers v Kings, 17:05; Cheetahs v Bulls, 19:10.*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing