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
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
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
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 ...
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).
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