S15: SA sides need bonus pts

    2013-04-29 14:28

    Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer

    Cape Town – “Just keep on winning and bonus points won’t be an issue” ... that was a theory which held good water as the Stormers earned successive home semi-finals as SA Conference winners in both of the first two years of the new Super Rugby system.

    That the Capetonians failed on each occasion to capitalise on that favourable finals series scheduling is another matter entirely, of course.

    But the fact remained that up to the semis in both 2011 and 2012, the Stormers had such a strong “winning culture” that bonus points – hardly an area in which they excelled either year -- were barely a factor as they set up lucrative Newlands fixtures in the last-four stage.

    Last year they actually earned fewer bonus points than any of the other 14 teams in the competition (including none for registering four tries) but victories in as many as 14 of their 16 ordinary-season clashes still powered them to top-placed finish on the overall table.

    That tally remains the record in the conference system’s fledgling history; the previous year the Reds (the eventual champions) bossed the overall log with 13 victories.

    But in a clear indication that the 2013 competition is shaping up as broadly the most competitive in the expanded format yet, it seems highly unlikely that any team will even get to 13 wins this time – for it to happen, any of the Brumbies, Reds or Cheetahs would have to win all of their remaining six games, or the Chiefs and Bulls all of their seven.

    No side has truly raced out in front of any of the three conferences, and there seems little reason to expect it to suddenly occur as the pressure only intensifies over the next few weeks.

    So what a more tightly-packed overall table this year could well mean is that bonus points play a bigger role than usual in determining which six teams qualify for the playoffs, and what the spread is between the countries.

    If bonus points do prove pivotal in certain instances, the latest weekend may yet prove to have been a costly one for two South African challengers, the Cheetahs and Sharks.

    The former side spurned a good opportunity to strike for a fourth try, well into the second half of their home game against the Kings and from the relative comfort of a 23-12 lead, Adriaan Strauss cautiously opting instead to bang over a further three points from a penalty awarded close to the visitors’ posts. And they never did manage that additional try.

    Meanwhile in Hamilton, the Sharks suffered the irritation of having a second bonus point in a reverse to the Chiefs snatched away after the siren as they conceded a penalty which took the champions back out to an eight-point advantage on the scoreboard.

    Might little things like that come back to haunt people if the current campaign continues to be a particularly uncomfortable bottleneck for playoffs spots?

    As things stand, a trio of New Zealand teams in the battle for qualification benefit most in the bonus points column – the Blues have eight, the Chiefs seven and the Crusaders six.

    Of the four realistic South African challengers for the finals series, all of the Bulls, Sharks and Stormers sport only four, and the Cheetahs are even one down on that tally with three.

    It is educative, I believe, to note that the Blues and Stormers, who coincidentally lock horns this Friday (Albany, 09:35 SA time) show identical records from eight games played in pure win-loss terms (four wins, four losses each).

    But whilst the Blues lie fifth overall, the Stormers are restricted to 10th by virtue of trailing by four to the Aucklanders in the bonus-points department – it is as though the Blues have an extra win.

    There is a tough strategic balancing act to play, of course: you could hardly pillory Strauss too much for his conservative choice against the Kings, who have shown themselves to be anything but the abject whipping boys initially anticipated in Super Rugby – their competitiveness has been one reason why the tournament is so keenly-contested in 2013.

    He will be as aware as anyone, too, of just how vital “standard” victories can be in many instances, with bonus points often becoming a decidedly secondary consideration as more and more games take on genuine ding-dong proportions.

    The short history of the conference system shows, for instance, that a very minimum of 10 wins is required for possible passage to the playoffs – and even that hasn’t always been enough.

    In 2011 the Bulls got 10 victories but agonisingly just missed the cut in seventh place, and in 2012 both the Brumbies and Hurricanes also missed out despite that tally of triumphs (though 10 each were, indeed, enough for the Bulls and Sharks to squeeze through).

    So if you set 11 victories as your virtual guarantee of a berth in the finals series – that figure hasn’t failed anyone yet -- you also get an indication of just how much the various, tightly-bunched South African contenders still have to do.

    To get to the seemingly watertight 11, the Bulls will need five wins from seven matches, the Cheetahs four from six, the Sharks six from seven and the Stormers seven from eight – it certainly leaves significant pressure on both coastal sides to tick off wins as routinely as possible on what is left of their always demanding overseas legs.

    But a closing bit of personal advice, considering the crazy clutter this year: if a bonus point stares your team invitingly in the face, you’d really better try to snatch it ...

    Remaining fixtures for all SA’s playoffs contenders:

    1. Bulls (32 points from nine matches so far): Hurricanes (h), bye, Highlanders (h), Sharks (a), Cheetahs (a), Kings (h), Sharks (h), Stormers (a).

    2. Cheetahs (31 points from 10): Bye, Hurricanes (h), Reds (h), Kings (a), Bulls (h), Stormers (a), Blues (h), bye.

    3. Sharks (28 points from 9): Highlanders (a), Reds (a), Force (a), Bulls (h), bye, Blues (h), Bulls (a), Kings (h).

    4. Stormers (28 points from 8): Blues (a), Waratahs (a), Rebels (a), Reds (h), Kings (h), Cheetahs (h), Kings (a), Bulls (h).

    *Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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