Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town – The unsung Cheetahs, their scrum gaining
increasingly menacing traction as the game dragged on at Loftus on Saturday
night, very nearly produced a mild Super Rugby upset that would have been right
up the alley of the group-leading Stormers.
Instead their opponents the Bulls, once again this season
guilty of being a “play for one half and go to sleep in the other” team, held
out for a 23-18 victory that just about managed to maintain some pressure on
the pace-setting Capetonians in Africa Conference 1.
Whatever constructive energy the hosts could muster came
almost overwhelmingly in the first half – they held sway 20-10 at the break –
as they notched all three of their tries then.
None of the trio of touchdowns possessed any sort of
associated subtlety or artistry, in what was generally a frantic but
error-prone contest far more blunderbuss than it was boasting any special
moments of brilliance.
It will be remembered mostly for the desperation and
huffing, puffing industry that characterised the Cheetahs’ second-half
clawback, in which they took mounting heart from a scrummaging supremacy that
would have had many muscular Bulls pack members of old wincing as they watched
the set-piece retreat.
At the end of the day, though, the Cheetahs weren’t capable
of finding sufficient game-breaking spark of their own to steal a win and this
fixture – just like the Kings v Sunwolves clash immediately preceding it on a
notably thin South African-based round six bill – carried an ominous whiff of
non-title challenging fare even at this pretty early stage of the 2016
Still, the Kings at least produced a performance of quite heroic
defensive resolve at critical times to repel their Japanese guests 33-28 and
thus leave the Sunwolves winless and now the team with the fewest log points (three)
of any in the complex 18-team competition.
But this was nevertheless a weekend where you might say
“normal service” took increasingly worrying hold if you were South African or
Australian, in the sense that teams from the land of the world champion All
Blacks largely extended their supremacy.
Given the dubious structure of the tournament again this
year – with its guaranteed quarter-finals for four conference-toppers -- an
overall table has less value than it probably should, but if you did lump all
of the 18 participants together right now, the top two sides for overall log
points generated would be the Chiefs (24) and Highlanders (22), with two other
New Zealand franchises (Crusaders and Hurricanes) featuring among the top seven
teams on that basis competition-wide.
The Stormers (18 points) and Sharks (16), both inactive in
the latest round, would be the two South African sides riding in the upper
echelons with the Brumbies (whacked at home by the Chiefs on Saturday) the only
Australian flag-carriers, although there was a rogue Sunday clash remaining in
the present round between the Waratahs and Rebels which could see one of them
advance to the “elite” seven.
Robbie Fleck’s charges head almost certainly the weaker on
paper of the two SA conferences – the other has both the Sharks and Lions in it
-- and remain fairly strong bookies’ and critics’ favourites to still be at the
helm of their pool at the knockout end of the competition.
That said, by winkling out their favourable Saturday result,
the slowly redeveloping Bulls did scratch back to within four points of their
old southern rivals after five games each.
Defeat, something they flirted rather dangerously with
against the stubbornly unyielding men from Bloemfontein, would seriously have increased
the likelihood of that particular four-team conference becoming a one-horse
race as the gap at the top would probably have been seven points instead.
You can virtually eliminate the possibility of either of the
Cheetahs or Sunwolves creating a sensation by winning the group, as both
already seem too far behind to be able to prove genuinely bothersome further
down the line.
The Bulls do have a reasonably attractive fixture next
weekend, when they travel down to Port Elizabeth to meet the Kings; they will
be widely deemed favourites despite the minnows’ tonic in beating the
But there is also an even better chance that the Stormers
will only have opened up a wider gap the night before, as their next foes are
the very Japanese team on Friday evening – that one seems as near as it is
possible to get as a banker for Juan de Jongh and company even if they are
somehow off their A-game at Newlands.
There can be absolutely no doubting of the SA headline act
of round seven: Sharks v Lions in Durban, with only two points dividing them in
Africa Conference 2.
All of next weekend’s
matches (home teams first, all kick-offs SA time):
Friday: Chiefs v Blues, 09:35; Force v Crusaders, 13:00;
Stormers v Sunwolves, 19:00. Saturday: Hurricanes v Jaguares, 09:35; Reds v
Highlanders, 11:45; Sharks v Lions, 17:05; Kings v Bulls, 19:15.
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