SA conference a serious mess

    2015-04-05 09:40

    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 positive development.

    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 well.

    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 silverware.

    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 22-18 victory.

    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 teams.

    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 weekend.

    For the sake of collective rugby pride in this country, they need to – and preferably convincingly – against the Aussie strugglers ...

    Next 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, 13:45

    Lions v Sharks, 17:05

    Bulls v Reds, 19:10

    Byes: Chiefs, Hurricanes, Rebels

    *Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

    Read More On:  super 15 rugby

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