Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town – The majority of the South African sides having now played eight of their 16 ordinary-season matches, it is a fitting time for a comprehensive Super Rugby midway progress check ... though “progress” is not the most pertinent description in too many cases.
It has been a lopsided, confusing campaign thus far in the domestic conference: the Sharks confidently head not only the local but overall pack, but we are in the fairly rare and unsatisfactory position of all four remaining SA outfits looking decidedly dodgy for finals series qualification.
Two, the hugely disappointing Cheetahs and Stormers, can just about be written off as contenders for the six-team elite cut already – you don’t require too much maths to deduce that.
But the Bulls and Lions are hanging in there, albeit that they are part of a hefty mid-table group of sides from across the three competing nations all hoping to squeeze through to the playoffs.
Should only the Sharks get through, it would represent South Africa’s worst return in the four years of the new conference-based system – the country peaked in 2012 when all of the Stormers, Bulls and Sharks made it to hog the allocated spots, and it has not yet been fewer than two teams.
Here is our SA team-by-team assessment of their campaigns so far, with suggested prospects for the run-in ...
Status: Overall and SA conference leaders (P7 W6 L1, 27pts)
Overview: No complaints eh, Sharks fans? The restructured franchise are exactly where they’d have most wished to be since Jake White became director of rugby and various other shakeups took place, having stumbled only once in seven matches. You couldn’t ask for much more. They seem dead certs to win the conference, although it could yet be in less favourable third overall if they significantly botch their overseas leg like all compatriots have done so far. If you include the four-match programme abroad, the Sharks have only one of their last seven fixtures at Kings Park so make no mistake, there’s much work still to be done. Considering the long-term injuries to the likes of Pieter-Steph du Toit and Pat Lambie, they will be hoping for few further setbacks of that magnitude ... but then isn’t everyone? Knocking over White’s former charges the Brumbies in Canberra might be a huge step toward ensuring a finals series ticket straight into a semi, rather than having to possibly play an extra match ahead of it. They’ll be desperate to stay top of the full pile for the great lure of a second chance at a Durban Super Rugby final ...
Remaining fixtures: Cheetahs (h), Highlanders (h), Rebels (a), Brumbies (a), Crusaders (a), Blues (a), Stormers (h), Cheetahs (a), Stormers (a).
Likely finish: Holding firm among top two overall, despite tougher second-half roster, thus guaranteed a home semi-final
Status: Eighth overall and second in SA conference (P8 W3 D1 L4, 18pts)
Overview: By my reckoning, whether the Bulls crack the playoffs or not could be largely determined over the course of the next week and half or so, when they play the Waratahs and Force respectively in Australia – lose both and it becomes a real mountain to climb, but a precious win in either could be enough to spark a fresh wave of necessary triumphs back on more desired SA soil. Remember that the Bulls have four of their last six matches at Loftus, and if they’re still in the hunt come the last weekend of ordinary season, then the Rebels in Pretoria certainly aren’t the worst opponents to have to tackle if, say, a full house of five points is required. I still believe the Bulls have to urgently address their glaring lack of a proper open-side flanker for the run-in period, but if they can somehow achieve that ...
Remaining fixtures: Waratahs (a), Force (a), Cheetahs (h), Stormers (h), Brumbies (h), Lions (a), Stormers (a), Rebels (h)
Likely finish: Could go either way, but perhaps just making playoffs in sixth overall
Status: Ninth overall and third in SA conference (P8 W4 L4, 16pts)
Overview: Has the bubble burst? The Lions have mostly punched well above their dubious weight in established, quality personnel to boast a 50 percent win record after eight games. Fantastic achievement, actually ... but successive home losses at Ellis Park of late have been a reality check and they are now only one match away from an unforgiving overseas tour. There is a real danger their travels will blow them right out of the water, especially as they begin against defending champions the Chiefs. If by some miracle they prosper in Australasia – say with two wins – then a highly unlikely playoffs thrust may be “on”, as their last three ordinary season matches are all in Johannesburg. Some would say that even if they lose all remaining games from here, they’ve still done themselves proud in their first season back at this level with a young and naive but amazingly gutsy and promising squad.
Remaining fixtures: Stormers (a), Chiefs (a), Highlanders (a), Waratahs (a), Force (a), Bulls (h), Rebels (h), Cheetahs (h)
Likely finish: Somewhere in bottom six overall
Status: 14th overall and fourth in SA conference (P8 W1 D1 L6, 9pts)
Overview: When you first think about it, it is gratifying to know that the Cheetahs are capable of posting 30 or 40 points against any comers. But then you quickly temper your thoughts with the knowledge that they are just as likely to leak 50-plus. If they can only sort out their chaotic defence, they’ll still be capable of downing any foes on a good day in what remains of the campaign. Wouldn’t the Sharks love, for instance, the similarly ambitious Brumbies and surprise-packet Force leaving Bloemfontein empty handed in the next few weeks? (They’ll be less keen on the possibility of the Cheetahs raiding their own Durban fortress this weekend.) Perhaps we’ll finally see some “complete” performances from the likes of Springboks Adriaan Strauss and Willie le Roux to help power a nothing-to-lose charge. But don’t count on it; every Cheetahs game may stay a rollercoaster affair ...
Remaining fixtures: Sharks (a), Stormers (h), Bulls (a), Force (h), Brumbies (h), Stormers (a), Sharks (h), Lions (a)
Likely finish: Among bottom four
Status: 15th overall and fifth in SA conference (P7 W1 L6, 6pts)
Overview: As many as nine games to go ... and six of those at Newlands. So in your wildest dreams, Stormers fans, you are allowed to chew on the possibility of your side suddenly winning just about all of them (only that would probably do, given their non-relish for landing bonus points) to sensationally make the playoffs. Of course it probably won’t happen, after such a wretched first half of the programme. Yes, a few players are slowly filtering back from injury but until their snarling tight-five enforcer Eben Etzebeth rejoins the engine room – he’s still got a while to go in his injury rehab – they’ll continue to struggle to genuinely dominate enemy packs. And that, of course, will hardly help their quest to register more tries. But what they might yet be are dangerous party spoilers to the aspirations of the Sharks and Bulls, given the traditional “no favours” attitude to bruising local derbies. Both sides are still to be tackled by Jean de Villiers and company both home and away, and as Springbok spots become an issue towards June, any Stormers players whose stars may have waned a tad in Heyneke Meyer’s eyes during the tough times thus far will be keen to resurrect their fortunes. I still have a gut feeling the Stormers will climb the overall table by a few rungs.
Remaining fixtures: Lions (h), Cheetahs (a), Highlanders (h), Bulls (a), Force (h), Cheetahs (h), Sharks (a), Bulls (h), Sharks (h)
Likely finish: Among bottom six
*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing