Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town – In certain ways, the South
African Super Rugby conference looking so extraordinarily tight after this
weekend’s matches, with a mere two points separating four teams, seems a
It suggests healthy strength versus
strength ... within our own parochial landscape.
But the broader context of the competition
matters that vital bit more, of course, and it is beginning to look
unpleasantly as though a home semi-final may be beyond any outfit from our
shores in 2015.
If that happens further up the line, it
would be the second successive time that South Africa misses out; last year the
Sharks faded into a third-placed finish after league play and their
(necessarily more difficult) playoffs phase quite rapidly fizzled out.
New Zealand sides are collectively bossing
proceedings to a major degree as the midway point of ordinary season looms for
many teams next weekend.
If it weren’t for the dodgy, artificial
requirement of each of the three conference leaders automatically occupying the
top three berths on the overall table come what may, the best-placed SA
franchise – now the Bulls – would actually lie sixth.
They instead unconvincingly command third,
with the flying Hurricanes and Australian pace-setting Brumbies ahead of them,
but should really be behind all of the Chiefs, Highlanders and Crusaders as
Certainly it is going to take a
near-miracle, not to mention a massive improvement in playing standards and
game-plans by aspirant SA teams, for one of them to power into top spot overall
after 16 rounds and boast potential rights to a coveted home showpiece.
The ‘Canes have moved to a gaping 12-point
lead over the Bulls, and keep in mind that they have already toured South
Africa while the Loftus-based side, by contrast, still have to negotiate the
always perilous four-match overseas roster – this year they will tackle the Blues,
Chiefs, Brumbies and Rebels in that order.
Similarly the pathetically lame Sharks,
level on 19 log points with the Bulls but having played one extra match, also
haven’t yet pocketed their passports for an even tougher programme abroad on
paper that involves the Highlanders, Hurricanes, Waratahs and Reds.
For the Durban side, especially, the tour
looks a hellish prospect when you take into account that on Saturday they
produced one of their most incompetent, listless and ill-disciplined home
showings of all time in Super Rugby as they were routed 52-10 by the Crusaders
and by eight tries to one.
If you heard a “pop” around Kings Park
after the final whistle – no, make that long before it – it was the sound of
the Sharks’ bubble bursting. A fourth defeat, without even having travelled
long-haul yet, hardly seems a recipe for a concerted crack at the main
You could argue that they are in full-blown
crisis, after deceptive, ugly Kings Park victories over the Force and Chiefs
that gave their supporters very little cheer and only delayed a proper implosion
which then came against the Cantabrians.
They looked rudderless and tactically naive
– two failings which you could not accuse their next opponents, the Lions in
Johannesburg on Saturday, of having.
Johan Ackermann’s charges are presently the
most admirable South African team, having added the home derby scalp of the
Bulls to a three-from-four win record overseas after this weekend’s last-ditch
Most of us acknowledge deep down that the
Lions don’t have the depth or array of superstars to seriously contend for the
title: from a neutral South African perspective, it would probably have been
better for the Bulls, three times champions in the competition, to have held on
after seizing an 18-15 advantage late on, only to botch a kick-off receipt that
led to the Lions’ replacement hooker Armand van der Merwe barrelling over for
the decisive try.
At the same time, you can only take your
hat off to their heroic perseverance: a lesser team in terms of courage and
unity would have been entitled to lose some steam, rather than only amass it,
in the dying minutes of this Highveld grudge game after only returning a few
days ago from their exertions abroad.
The Lions have now joined the Stormers on
17 points, both two shy of the Bulls and Sharks, to make the conference a great
ball of confusion – to the glee, no doubt, of all the better Australasian
Frankly, Warren Whiteley and his merry men may
deserve now to be considered favourites for the follow-up derby against the
Sharks, and if they do pull it off they will leapfrog them in the conference.
The Bulls weren’t all bad in the narrow
reverse in the Big Smoke, and should return to winning ways when they entertain
the second-from-bottom Reds in the first game of their mini-SA safari next
For the sake of collective rugby pride in
this country, they need to – and preferably convincingly – against the Aussie
weekend’s fixtures (home teams first, all kick-offs SA time):
Friday, April 10
Blues v Brumbies, 09:35
Saturday, April 11
Crusaders v Highlanders, 09:35
Waratahs v Stormers, 11:40
Force v Cheetahs,
Lions v Sharks, 17:05
Bulls v Reds, 19:10
Byes: Chiefs, Hurricanes,
our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing