S15: SA home semi bid shaky

    2015-05-17 10:27

    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 2015.

    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 phase.

    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 shot.

    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 continues.

    Yes, this may have been a particularly detrimental weekend for the SA playoffs challenge ...   

    Next 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 - 17:05

    Stormers v Rebels - 19:10

    Bye: Brumbies

    *Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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