Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town - Remember how we used to chuckle at times about how unflattering the Australian conference in Super Rugby was?
The joke’s more on us now.
In an apt, halfway-mark reflection of the collective struggle of the South African teams (plus the latched-on Jaguares) so far in 2018, our conference can safely be branded currently the weakest-performing of the three.
Four of the five teams in the SA conference - only the Bulls lie one game behind - have now completed 50 percent of their 16 ordinary-season fixtures, and the group has amassed a total of 78 log points.
The Australian conference, meanwhile, has managed 74 points … but with all of their teams only having played seven games, so they actually sport a superior “average”.
Similarly, the New Zealand group (way ahead with 103 points) features four teams having completed seven fixtures, and even one - the Highlanders - with only six matches below their belt.
So despite having had the general advantage of an extra round each thus far, the South African sides have had a largely forgettable first half of the programme.
Helped for two previous years by the Lions’ consistent excellence (they ended losing finalists each time), the SA cause looked deceptively better in that period. But with the Johannesburg-based team notably less convincing so far this year and in some danger of not earning rights to a home semi-final, we could be staring down the barrel of another “2015”.
In that season, the Stormers were the best-finishing SA side, but only in third overall and their position greatly inflated by the dubious structure of the competition - for total log points, they were actually a mere seventh.
Overall in 2015, too, the Lions ended eighth, Bulls ninth, Sharks 11th and Cheetahs 12th: innocuous stuff indeed, and with 2018 looking in some danger of a collective repeat.
Here’s my halfway-house assessment of the four SA sides:
LIONS (P8 W5 L3 – 25 pts, top of conference, second overall):
They nominally lie second competition-wide still, but it is very tenuous: five teams below could overhaul them if they won matches in hand.
That’s the price you pay for frittering away three games out of eight, including two in the Big Smoke. There was also that horribly close shave at home against the limited Sunwolves, remember.
In short, the Lions look less compelling this year than in either of Johan Ackermann’s last two years in charge, although let’s not be too hasty to make that any reflection yet of incumbent Swys de Bruin.
When they DO fire, the Lions can still look pretty close to a million dollars: like in the 52-31 triumph over the Stormers ahead of their critical four-leg overseas tour.
Their run-in is tougher on paper than for any other SA side, but Warren Whiteley is back on board imminently as skipper - a most heartening development - and there is still a comfortable points cushion at the top of the group. (The red-and-whites may need it.)
Remaining fixtures: Waratahs (a), Reds (a), Hurricanes (a), Highlanders (a), Brumbies (h), Stormers (a), Sharks (a), Bulls (h)
Finish prediction: Should still win SA conference, though by tighter margin than presently evident. With so few games at Ellis Park in second half, home semi rights WON’T be secured, I fear.
BULLS (P7 W3 L4 – 14 pts, second in conference, eighth overall):
I’d argue that the Bulls are the one South African side playing to pre-season expectation.
Remember, this was always going to be a “rebuild” campaign under John Mitchell’s first-time tutelage, and it would have been naïve not to still expect quite a few losses along the journey.
Educatively, when the Bulls are winning, they are often doing so in some style: think the brilliant, early upset of now tournament-leading Hurricanes; also last Saturday’s 30-point stuffing of the Sharks in Durban.
They are gaining in confidence, playing more intelligent rugby at a higher tempo, and have the benefit of more games left (nine, five at Loftus) than any compatriots.
Winning the conference - though it would almost certainly be in third place overall if it happened - is not a completely wacky thought at this juncture, but it will probably need the Lions to have an Australasian tour shocker over the next few weeks.
Remaining fixtures: Rebels (h), Highlanders (h), Stormers (a), Sharks (h), Jaguares (a), Brumbies (h), Sunwolves (a), Jaguares (h), Lions (a)
Finish prediction: Will keep their hold on second in conference, so best chance of a second QF ticket for the country (it’s reasonably unlikely from here that there’ll be more).
SHARKS (P8 W2 D1 L5 – 14 pts, third in conference, 10th overall):
Arguably the most glaring under-deliverers of all the SA teams ahead of the “turn”.
Two wins from eight is an unacceptable return from a side boasting healthy depth in several key areas, and people in the vicinity of the Shark Tank will be losing some patience with coach Robert du Preez’s oft-repeated admissions that his charges require the riot act or, at very least, long, hard looks at themselves … etc, etc.
But who ARE the real Sharks?
The ones who were so desperately unlucky, it is true, to lose 38-37 at last gasp away to the Hurricanes, yet bludgeoned the Blues into submission also in NZ? Or the ones who looked so fumbling and lateral in the earlier Aussie leg, and then criminally lethargic in the home embarrassment from the Bulls?
A spot of consistency might go a long way, and they have immediately ahead successive Durban fixtures against the Stormers and Highlanders to try to engineer that.
There’s much ground to make up, but the resources on paper to make it happen, even if I can hear some cynical grunts already …
Remaining fixtures: Stormers (h), Highlanders (h), Bulls (a), Chiefs (h), Jaguares (a), Lions (h), Stormers (a), Jaguares (h)
Finish prediction: Toss-up, really, as to which of Sharks or Stormers will claim “middle” finish in conference, and with outside chance of away QF. Each have five home games left. The two derbies between them (first on Saturday, in Durban) could be very influential.
STORMERS (P8, W3 L5 – 13 pts, fourth in conference, 11th overall):
Robbie Fleck and his lieutenants should be cut just a bit more slack than their KZN-based counterparts … though I do stress “bit”.
That is because injuries have come into play (both pre-season and during the campaign itself thus far) to a far more disruptive degree than would remotely have been anticipated.
If anything, the next few weeks should see more and more “hardebaarde” filter back into the recipe than fall out of the bowl, so a knockout spot can’t yet be dismissed as a ludicrous scenario.
After their pretty much do-or-die derby up the coast this weekend, come three welcome Newlands fixtures on the trot, so that whole period will determine whether they retain quarter-finals interests right up to the closing rounds of ordinary season.
Still, there is some lingering concern among pundits that the Stormers, in trying to restore “Province rugby” principles of old to their mouldy old stadium, have done so at the gross expense of defence.
Remaining fixtures: Sharks (a), Rebels (h), Bulls (h), Chiefs (h), Sunwolves (a), Lions (h), Jaguares (a), Sharks (h)
Finish prediction: See Sharks one …
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