SA derbies like cold ‘slaptjips’

    2015-06-09 12:55

    Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer

    Cape Town – For the second year running in the South African conference of Super Rugby, the intended last-day thrills and spills of derbies will come with disappointingly limited stakes.

    It is a reflection of the humble challenge being posed again in playoffs terms by our collective group of five teams; across the Indian Ocean it is no coincidence that there will be games of bigger importance at the ordinary season climax in both the New Zealand and Australians conferences.

    The two all-SA games on the Saturday roster for the closing round of ordinary season – Bulls v Cheetahs at Loftus (17:05) and Sharks v Stormers at Kings Park (19:10) – lack the kind of “do or die” element that franchise marketers would have wished for.

    Of course the Bulls’ PR machine, for instance, can hardly be blamed for doing its best to summon interest in what it called in a media email this week “the much-anticipated South African derby” against the Cheetahs.

    Yes, these are fierce rivals of fairly long standing, but this year the game carries far too much of a sloppy seconds feel – the once-touted Bulls have just returned from a winless overseas tour which blew their top-six chances right out of the water, whilst a Cheetahs team in the throes of management and other transition has the dubious record at present of leaking 40-plus points in each of their last four matches and are already guaranteed the conference wooden spoon.

    So you’d like to be able to look to the night-time Durban fixture for some domestic salvation; for a bit of a kick to it.

    Regrettably, by the time it comes around -- as the very last game of ordinary season anywhere -- there should also be notably little at stake as far as the overall competition is concerned.

    Unless both the Waratahs and Brumbies have lost home matches to the Reds and Crusaders respectively earlier in the day, South Africa’s already-assured conference winners the Stormers will have nothing of playoffs relevance to drive them along in what is normally a coastal cracker.

    Indeed, powerful noises from the Newlands-based camp early this week only suggest that they intend fielding a XV that will be strongly “second team” in makeup as they presume the requirement of a home extra qualifier a week later – carefully cocooning big names for it -- and then semi-final abroad.

    Under such circumstances, the cat could be placed among the pigeons if they suddenly, unexpectedly discover during the afternoon that they still have a shout at a home semi and must beat the Sharks to nip ahead of one of the Aussie sides and end second overall instead of third.

    You have to mischievously wonder whether a couple of “extra seats” for more seasoned players may be booked for the flight up, in the event that the derby carries greater importance at the eleventh hour and they don’t want the run-on team to be quite as callow as initially compiled!

    The likelier scenario at this stage remains that they will take to Kings Park aware that the game has no impact on their final playoffs placement.

    It will be a shame, particularly as the out-of-contention Sharks would have wished to tackle a fuller-strength Stormers combo in a game that will mark the sentimental goodbyes of the Du Plessis brothers, Bismarck and Jannie, and behemoth loose forward Willem Alberts.

    The Sharks themselves lie 11th overall and cannot either improve on that berth or be dragged down a peg or two, given the size of the points gaps on both sides of them.

    This weekend’s (probably) tame end to ordinary season in a South African sense mirrors last year in most respects, and perhaps appropriately: that was another campaign when only one side from our shores made the playoffs – the Sharks – and also in third, the spot likely to be occupied by the Stormers this time.

    In the closing round of 2014, the Lions (who ended 12th) played the 14th-placed Cheetahs and duly thumped them 60-25 in a decidedly “hangover” type of clash, while in the feature game at Newlands the Stormers – well out of the running and to finish 11th – were beaten 34-10 by the Sharks.

    The visitors had still possessed a morsel of hope – but no more than that – entering that derby that they might finish second, but needed not only to score four tries but prevail by at least 35 points to nudge the Crusaders out of second and grab a coveted home semi.

    They gave it a brave crack, but fell short on both counts (there were three tries to their credit) and would have been kicking themselves afterwards that they really botched it a week earlier by losing to the Cheetahs 27-20 in Bloemfontein.

    In an ideal world, most last-round derbies should carry the promise of tension, raw brutality and high drama.

    It’s a bit telling that South Africa faces a second year when the stadiums hosting them may have a more hollow, echoing sound than we would like.

    *Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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