Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town – So the Stormers, in their less-than-pulsating way, are back at the top of a broadly inglorious South African conference in Super Rugby.
If the latest round did anything, it was probably only serve evidence decreasing the likelihood that a team from these shores will win the competition -- an achievement not yet managed since the change to the three-group system in 2011.
Simply, none shows the required ambition or sparkle, although Johan Ackermann’s Lions, with their more modest resources than certain others domestically, are the nearest to achieving a balanced, satisfyingly all-round kind of game.
It is almost as if the parochial, internal scrap for conference bragging rights is somehow deemed sufficient; correct me if you believe I am wrong.
For the record, three SA teams – Stormers, Lions and Bulls – stay in the race on paper for the regional spoils, and also for the six-team playoffs phase, so optimists might protest “what’s the problem, then?”
Yet as every week goes by, the prospect only balloons that New Zealand sides will significantly hog those half-dozen slots at the end of ordinary season, and their best ones also bank the most favourable positions from a finals series scheduling point of view for a realistic title charge.
The Hurricanes are so far ahead of the rest of the tournament pack it is almost ridiculous: they are all but confirmed as top-placed finishers with three rounds to go, and already mathematically certain now – as if we didn’t really know it already! - is that no South African or Australian team can eclipse them from here.
Either of the Chiefs or Highlanders (cruelly fourth and fifth respectively overall, though with more points than both leaders of the other conferences) still has the faintest of chances of hauling them in if the ‘Canes implode inexplicably and register a massively unlikely two points or fewer from their next available 15 and one of the other two keeps landing big wins.
It can only be one because those very sides meet each other this Saturday, and the loser surrenders all hope of ending head of the pile.
So with a New Zealand franchise assured of best finish, the fight is on for what looks more and more like a “sloppy second” between the leading SA and Aussie sides to ensure that still very important second automatic home semi-final berth.
The second-placed Waratahs have their noses in front in that respect: they are three points clear of the third-placed Stormers after 13 matches each.
How important might that advantage be, come the end of the ordinary-season programme?
Each has won nine matches, but the side from Sydney are virtually a win ahead, effectively, as they have five bonus points to the Stormers’ two.
The Capetonians appear to cling stubbornly to their philosophy that grinding out basic victories is enough, and to hell with the occasional four-try cherry on top.
They did get three tries – way better than their tourney average thus far of under two per match – in the latest triumph over the Melbourne Rebels at Newlands on Saturday night but may yet come to rue failing in the last 34 minutes to secure another, as dubious conservatism in decision-making and continued attacking impotence from structured play thwarted them.
For further evidence of the importance of racking up bonus points, consider that the Stormers are actually level on points (38) with the sixth-placed Brumbies, who have only won seven matches to their nine – the Canberra outfit nevertheless have as many as 10 bonus points.
Still, the Stormers do look strongly on course from here to win the conference, even if they run the considerable risk of failing to get a home semi - and they would make history if they went on to win the overall title from that disadvantageous position.
While the super-scrummaging side should earn another win when the embattled Cheetahs, victims of successive home thumpings from the Highlanders and Lions, come to town next weekend, compatriots the Bulls and Lions face probable do-or-die weekends games against Australian opposition.
First the Bulls, beaten twice on the NZ leg of their overseas tour to stretch a horrible record to nine losses abroad on the trot since 2013, tackle the Brumbies in Canberra on Friday and if they slip up again, it also only enhances the prospects of the home side elbowing them out of the playoffs.
The Lions will also bid farewell to their spirited challenge this year if they fall to the Waratahs in Saturday’s late showpiece in South Africa, so they will seek a repeat of their urgency and enterprise shown in Bloemfontein.
If both Highveld sides lose in this round, it is almost certainly the Stormers only carrying the SA flag to the deeper stages ...
Next round of fixtures (home teams first, all kick-offs SA time):
Friday, May 29
Crusaders v Hurricanes - 09:35
Brumbies v Bulls - 11:40
Sharks v Rebels - 19:10
Saturday, May 30
Highlanders v Chiefs - 09:35
Force v Reds - 11:40
Stormers v Cheetahs - 17:05
Lions v Waratahs - 19:10
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