Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town - Super Rugby has not yet been
won by the worst-finishing conference winner after ordinary season ... as
things stand, then, the situation looks a bit bleak for South Africa again in
The threat has increased - following a
depressing, winless weekend for all four teams in action from the SA conference - of a repeat of last year, when the Sharks receded to third-placed finish on
the overall table.
It meant the significant disadvantage for
them of an extra game in the finals series, while the Waratahs (Australia) and
Crusaders (New Zealand) above them enjoyed byes into guaranteed home
semi-finals and then duly went on to contest the showpiece, with the ‘Tahs
earning a maiden title.
Going into the latest round of matches in
this year’s competition the Stormers, inactive this weekend, held second spot
overall and the Bulls were also in the six-strong playoffs zone; there was only
one Australian side in it as three NZ sides fittingly dominated that territory.
But suddenly now South Africa is the worst-represented
country among the elite half-dozen, as the Capetonians have been bumped down to
seventh and the Waratahs have re-entered the picture in sixth, to join
compatriots the Brumbies (second) in the upper region.
The Bulls are the lone SA representatives
- in that less desirable third - but are just one point superior to the
Stormers in a domestic sense, courtesy of stealing a losing bonus point in the
bitterly disappointing reverse to weakest NZ outfit the Blues on Friday.
It was an outcome that set the dubious tone
for the other SA franchises this weekend, as the Sharks, Lions and Cheetahs all
suffered the same fate ... worst of all, they allowed victors the Waratahs,
Brumbies and Highlanders respectively to only strengthen their own playoffs
challenges in doing so.
At least the Stormers, watching with their
feet up, emerged as the one local team not shedding too many tears over the
situation, especially as the losses for the Bulls and Lions have increased the
likelihood that they will boss the conference at the end of the ordinary-season
Allister Coetzee’s charges return to the
fray at Newlands next Saturday against a Rebels side which had some wind
knocked from their once-promising sails by the Reds in Brisbane – the hosts
will be favourites, and certainly have an easier fixture on paper than the
Bulls, who must try to quickly grab back lost tour ground against the
formidable Chiefs in Rotorua.
Sadly the Lions, by getting nothing in log
points terms from their Johannesburg date with the impressive Brumbies (a 30-20
defeat) may well have joined the ranks of also-rans now, although they are
mathematically still in the playoffs picture.
They have only three games left, before an
inconvenient last-round bye, and two of those are on the road - Cheetahs,
Stormers - which lessens the chance that they will be capable of prevailing in
all of them, as they surely must from here.
If we are to assume their gallant goose is
all but cooked, it leaves the Bulls and Stormers as last title hopes from our
shores and both, frankly, have too many question marks hovering over them to
suggest they are real front-runners at this stage for the main silverware.
The Bulls were inconsistent, hesitant and
blunder-prone in their Eden Park defeat, and with three difficult matches
remaining on their overseas leg, a march to a Loftus semi-final seems a long
Similarly the Stormers, although blessed
with three further home fixtures on the trot before they finish up in Durban,
may also need a 100 percent win record from here if a semi-final is possibly to
be staged in the shadow of Table Mountain - that is because they retain their
modern tradition of battling to bag bonus points of the four-try variety.
It can almost be taken for granted that the
runaway Hurricanes, fresh off pipping the Chiefs in Wellington, are going to
end first overall, so it is really a battle between the Brumbies and Waratahs
from Australia and the Bulls and Stormers from our neck of the woods for that
precious second spot.
The Brumbies’ run-in doesn’t look too bad,
with a bye next weekend as reward for their high-tempo exertions at Emirates
Airline Park, and then remaining matches against the Bulls and Crusaders (home)
and Force (away).
Meanwhile the ‘Tahs - one berth higher than
the Stormers at present with a two-point cushion - still have to negotiate
their South African tour, but the two games are against the Lions and Cheetahs
which, with respect, won’t intimidate the defending champions too enormously.
The men from Sydney might well have edged
the game anyway, but they were aided in their cause on Saturday, against the
luckless Sharks, by some decidedly fruit-cake officiating both on the field,
from Rohan Hoffmann, and from the TMO booth.
Watching the injury-plagued Cheetahs
succumb heavily to the Highlanders in Bloemfontein, we were perhaps served a
worrying little reminder of how further diluted the broad South African talent
pool will become when a sixth team, the Kings, is added to the Super Rugby mix
next season even as the exodus of players to lucrative foreign club contracts
Yes, this may have been a particularly
detrimental weekend for the SA playoffs challenge ...
round of fixtures (home teams first, all kickoffs SA time):
Friday, May 22
Chiefs v Bulls - 09:35
Reds v Sharks - 11:40
Saturday, May 23
Blues v Hurricanes - 09:35
Waratahs v Crusaders - 11:40
Force v Highlanders - 13:45
Cheetahs v Lions -
Stormers v Rebels - 19:10
our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing