Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town - Unless the pace-setting Sharks rather run away with the South African conference
, which would probably ensure them a welcome, prime playoffs ranking, there is a danger of the five-strong bunch becoming a bit of a group of death in Super Rugby 2013.
Such a situation would potentially be detrimental to all title-aspirant sides from our shores - even at this relatively early stage you can almost banish the thought of a repeat of last season’s luxury, when three outfits (Stormers, Sharks, Bulls) made it into the six-team finals series.
Nor is there any guarantee this year of just two South African franchises making the much-desired cut; only the conference winners, of course, are assured of an onward passage.
Certain blessings come attached to a real collective dogfight in the SA group: it would be a sign not only that the talent pool in the country is being better distributed these days, but that we are also providing fewer lame-duck teams - ie, ones near-perennially stationed near or at the bottom of the overall table.
Strength versus strength rugby can only add to the quality and viewer appeal of the expanded, obligatory quota of derbies under the new (now three-year-old) system, and that is the way the local conference seems to be shaping in 2013.
But it is simultaneously only increasing the likelihood of our sides regularly neutralising each other - for example, the Cheetahs beating the Stormers at home, as they just did, but arguably still being tipped to lose the return leg at Newlands - which means a stronger chance of several South African sides occupying middling turf on the overall log and not quite doing enough to crack the playoffs.
When the conference system began in 2011, neither the Lions nor Cheetahs were realistic candidates for the knockout phase, which naturally only enhanced the likelihood of the then “big three” franchises of the Stormers, Sharks and Bulls making the cut because the aforementioned pair were relative easy-beats within the conference.
That had been the case for several years in the older Super 14 format too: between 2006 and 2010 the Lions and Cheetahs always ended among the bottom five, and usually with one of them rock-bottom.
Then, though, fellow South African franchises got a limited benefit from playing them because it was on a once-off annual basis only, and the overseas teams would also generally whip them - particularly on their often limp Australasian legs.
At the current bend in the 2013 road, the South African landscape is noticeably different, and in some ways refreshingly so: there are four teams from our shores still with genuine aspirations of making the playoffs (yes, even the currently maligned, under-the-weather Stormers), whilst even rookies the Kings have surprised prophets of doom thus far by being very credible foes to most comers.
Let’s be realistic: the Eastern Cape side are not genuinely targeting the playoffs, wanting only to be as competitive as possible in every match to drum up support for their longer-term presence in the competition and, if at all possible, to avoid the scheduled South African promotion/relegation tussle against the Lions in mid-winter. (It’s still odds-on they’ll be the opposition.)
But if they can keep mustering the sort of hunger and ability that saw them shock Aussie leading lights the Brumbies into a Canberra draw last weekend, the Kings will also be looked upon with more trepidation than initially expected by all remaining SA opponents - they still have seven such derbies in ordinary season.
That said, the Cheetahs have been the main conference surprise packages thus far, with their admirable progress rather putting a spanner in the works for a team like the Stormers, twice previously the group winners but presently languishing in fourth spot, six points behind the men from Bloemfontein (in second) and having played one match less.
But if, for example, the home teams in this weekend’s two attractive derbies - Stormers and Bulls - knock over the visiting Sharks and Cheetahs respectively, it will really start to create a logjam between the top four sides in the conference, with perhaps then no more than five points separating first from fourth with well over half the programme left.
As it is even now, the SA conference sports the narrowest gap between top and bottom: 14 points separate the Sharks (25) from the Kings (11). By contrast, a gaping 23 points divide the Chiefs (29) from the surprisingly inept Highlanders (6), while in Australia there are 18 between the Brumbies (29) and Force (11).
If you were a completely neutral South African rugby enthusiast, simply wishing for the best possible chance of a side from our soil actually winning the Super Rugby trophy for the first time since 2010, you would probably look at the current tables and urge the Sharks to pull well clear of the rest, thus giving them a rosy prospect of a top-two overall finish and guaranteed Kings Park semi, and just one other SA side to also make strong headway as the other three lose some interest and ambition.
The longer the conference remains a four-team playoffs bun-fight, the higher the risk that the eventual conference winner gets the far less desirable third place overall, taking a lucrative home semi out of the picture and adding a hazardous, exhausting qualifier even before that stage.
So while a more widely competitive SA group is a pleasing development so far, it comes with the associated possibility of the conference quietly “eating itself”, and no truly standout team emerging at the business end.
It’s a strange, win-lose situation, isn’t it? *Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing