Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town - The Sharks keep their place at
the top of the South African conference in Super Rugby, but even the domestic
leaders lost some of their gloss in the latest round of matches.
There is a long way to go - most of the
five teams in the SA group only reach the halfway mark of their ordinary-season
schedules next weekend - but as things stand none are playing with the sort of
lustre to firmly suggest they are overall title material in 2013.
It is advantage Australia right now: the
Brumbies and Reds boast more points than any of the other 13 teams in the
competition, with Jake White’s charges atop the pile and the side from
Queensland, the 2011 champions, only limited to fourth on the combined
standings because of the tournament stipulation that each conference leader
occupy one of the top three slots.
VIDEO: Stormers v Sharks, highlights
VIDEO: Bulls v Cheetahs, highlights
VIDEO: Rebels v Kings, highlights
GALLERY - Super Rugby - Week 9
Some comfort for the rest is that the two
best-performing Aussie outfits go head to head in Brisbane in the most
attractive (to neutrals, anyway) fixture of next weekend’s action, so one of
them is likely to lose a bit of steam.
Still, if the knockout phase,
hypothetically, began immediately and on the basis of the current pecking
order, South Africa would sport the worst qualifying ranking, with the Sharks
forced into an extra match in the finals series and only the Brumbies
(Australia) and Chiefs (New Zealand) assured of coveted home semi-finals.
If there were fears a few days ago of our
conference becoming a “group of death”, they were only enhanced this weekend as
both the Sharks and second-placed Cheetahs lost in respective derbies to the
Stormers and Bulls, whilst the lowest-placed Kings, expected to be mere fodder
to all comers before the season began, served further gallant notice in their
final game abroad that they could be significant nuisance value in a stream of
derbies to come for them.
As former Springbok coach Nick Mallett
noted in the SuperSport studio: “(The SA conference) is getting a bit blocked
up ... no one’s really made a break for it.”
There is now only a difference of 11 points
between the Sharks in first (26) and the Kings in last (15) on the conference
table, whereas in New Zealand the Chiefs (29) are a vast 23 points ahead of the
abject Highlanders (6) and in Australia the Brumbies (33) are 18 points clear
of basement teams the Force and Rebels (15 each).
The all-South African games on Saturday
evening were typically breathless and uncompromising, albeit not quite the
exhibitions of flowing, daring rugby that old-school purists desire.
Both the Stormers and Bulls largely won because
they were the more “desperate” on the day at Newlands and Loftus respectively.
That said, the slightly embattled
Capetonians produced arguably the most meritorious showing of all the South
African teams, their forwards - who were under a fresh cloud after the late
surrender in Bloemfontein a week earlier - really rising to the occasion
against a higher-rated and more seasoned Sharks eight.
The set scrums represented the most
conspicuous area of Stormers improvement, with young tighthead Frans Malherbe
getting an early, morale-boosting big right shoulder in on Beast Mtawarira and
then loosehead Steven Kitshoff quickly following suit by having Jannie du
Plessis back-pedalling unpleasantly too - the home team seldom surrendered
their grip after that.
It may be of some concern to Springbok
coach Heyneke Meyer, who is about to supervise an early camp for a broad
national squad, that his old first-team firm of Mtawarira and, in particular,
Du Plessis are not playing to known levels of front row excellence at present.
Gratifying also for the Stormers, as they
got welcome front-foot traction, was one of their several pre-season recruits
from the Lions, Michael Rhodes, performing with great gusto - though fellow
flanker Siya Kolisi, a constant physical colossus, was not at all far behind.
The Sharks laboured to get over the
advantage line all match, and seem to be in the midst of one of those strange
spells of drought for them in try-scoring terms: this was the second
consecutive game where they have not got over the whitewash, and fourth time in
their seven fixtures thus far.
Jean de Villiers’s side have a welcome bye
before starting their Australasian leg, although with three wins from seven
they still have lots of restorative work to do if they are to somehow seize
conference supremacy for a third time in as many seasons.
Meanwhile in the Highveld tussle, the
Cheetahs’ glorious run of five victories came to a halt against the Bulls,
although towards the end there were strong suggestions that the visitors might
pull the game from the fire in the manner they had done a few days earlier at
home to the Stormers.
The three-time champions looked composed
defensively, which checked the traditional enterprise of the Cheetahs, although
whether the Bulls have the true tight-five clout to challenge for another title
remains shrouded in doubt. Can they stick effectively to their fairly
predictable, conservative game-plan given that drawback?
I still believe there is a growing danger
of South Africa sporting several teams who are just plain “decent” at the end
of the ordinary season, as opposed to one or two who are outstanding.
Mind you, there remains ample time yet for
shifts in trends ...
round of matches (home teams first, all times SA):
Friday: Hurricanes v Force, 09:35; Waratahs
v Chiefs, 11:40. Saturday: Crusaders v Highlanders, 09:35; Reds v Brumbies,
11:40; Sharks v Cheetahs, 17:05; Kings v Bulls, 19:10. Byes: Stormers, Rebels,
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