Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town – It would be foolhardy, with the halfway point of
Super Rugby ordinary season not quite ticked off, for anyone to submit that
“the coast is toast” in South Africa.
But let’s just say that week eight of 17 will go down as one
where two inland powers, the Lions and Bulls, made very substantial conference
gains at the expense of the Stormers and Sharks.
Of the quartet, who are also the remaining SA sides with
realistic ongoing quarter-final aspirations – both the Cheetahs and Kings
almost certainly lag too far behind already – only the Sharks played on foreign
soil on Saturday, and their 23-18 loss to the Blues in their New Zealand tour
opener seemed particularly damaging.
That is because it looked their “easiest” fixture on the
three-match trip and, with the Highlanders and Chiefs still ahead, a major danger
exists now that they may come home winless – as it is, Gary Gold’s charges have
now not tasted triumph in four successive matches after a roaring start to
Adding to their present woes in Africa Conference 2,
group-mates the Lions later staved off the Stormers 29-22 in a high-quality
Johannesburg clash, to open up a handy five-point lead on the Durban-based side
after seven games each.
With the Lions next playing the limited Kings in Port
Elizabeth, rather than having to face up to a taxing assignment against the
defending champions in Dunedin as the Sharks do, that gap is quite likely to
only widen in week nine.
By contrast, things are tantalisingly poised in Africa
Conference 1, where three-times title winners the Bulls, fresh from trouncing
the Reds 41-22 at Loftus, had double cause to celebrate a couple of hours
later, as the result just down the highway at Emirates Airline Park also suited
their agenda enormously.
The Stormers did bag a losing bonus point – and just about
deserved that for their contribution to a welcome, constructive and enthralling
derby – but by suffering their second defeat of the year saw the Bulls (23) close
to within one point of the Capetonians’ supremacy on the table.
Without generating a huge amount of fanfare, Adriaan Strauss
and company presently boast unbeaten status in six matches on the trot after
their inexperienced (but seemingly fast-learning) side were humbled 33-9 at
Newlands on the opening weekend.
They now enjoy the ideal scenario of a bye, to prepare them
for a three-game tour of Australia, and they will leave our shores in
rightfully decent spirits: there were shades of the Bulls of old in the way
they piled into collisions, showed strong leg-drive and occasionally opened up
play with some pizzazz.
Suddenly the Stormers, widely identified as being
beneficiaries of a kind draw this year, aren’t sitting nearly as pretty as they
were in the conference, although there is also no need for panic stations just
because they lost an epic battle in the Big Smoke where they were pressing
courageously for a draw well after the siren.
As for the Lions, this triumph over the consistently
tough-nut Stormers, coming straight on the heels of an away victory over the
Sharks, only confirmed the seriousness of their own aspirations in 2016.
With flyhalf Elton Jantjies brilliantly to the fore – what a
mature and routinely classy, calculated customer he has become – they were
indisputable value for securing the spoils after what former Springbok coach and
SuperSport analyst Nick Mallett enthusiastically branded “royal entertainment …
such a good advertisement for South African rugby”.
While the Sharks not being able to get the better of the
lowest-ranked of the otherwise imperious NZ teams was reason for some crumpled
brows back home, the Cheetahs nearly posting a century of points against the
Sunwolves a day earlier added to a broadly upbeat weekend for the SA teams.
Perhaps Naas Botha made a relevant point when he suggested
after all the dust had settled on the round: “The players finally now know who
the Bok coach is … so decided ‘let’s start playing’.”
fixtures (home teams first, all kick-offs SA time):
Friday: Highlanders v Sharks, 09:35; Rebels v Cheetahs,
11:45. Saturday: Sunwolves v Jaguares, 07:15; Hurricanes v Chiefs, 09:35; Force
v Waratahs, 11:45; Stormers v Reds, 15:00; Kings v Lions, 17:10. Sunday:
Brumbies v Crusaders, 08:05. Byes: Blues, Bulls.
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