Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town - The quarter-final programme now decided, South Africa’s dreams of a first Super Rugby title since 2010 somehow seem as fanciful as ever.
For starters, only two strictly SA-based sides - the Bulls and Sharks - have made the last-eight cut for next weekend, after Saturday afternoon’s twin home derby roster on our soil began with a chance that three (the Lions and Stormers were still in contention, for one extra ticket) might squeeze through the funnel.
But instead the Stormers, pipped 12-9 right at the death by the Sharks at Newlands in a snore-fest, slipped to bottom-placed finish in their conference and 10th overall, while the Lions sadly ended a three-year period of decent prosperity - final appearances each time - by also failing to make the cut in ninth overall.
Swys de Bruin’s charges, thumped 48-27 at Loftus despite scoring a spectacular long-range try in the first 16 seconds, failed to land the solitary, agonising log point they needed to push through.
So just a pair of SA franchises getting in (bearing in mind that the Jaguares had already easily topped the group) instantly makes it less likely that the title will head this way in three weeks’ time, even if each game was always going to involve the major drawback of long-haul travel.
But there is another impediment: just in terms of the vibrant way they are currently playing, the Bulls, the country’s only previous winners in modern-era Super Rugby, seem best bets of the two sides to go all the way - but probably have a tougher quarter-final than the Sharks do.
They will tackle the Hurricanes in Wellington, whereas the KwaZulu-Natalians seem to have the easier task on paper against the Brumbies in Canberra.
In the other tussles, the Chiefs fly to Buenos Aires to face the Jaguares, and the defending champion Crusaders are at home to compatriots the Highlanders.
The Bulls currently look the best equipped SA outfit in terms of the pace, passion and mongrel of their game to be able to go all the way, something demonstrated as they concocted seven tries to two against their Highveld neighbours.
But making their task in the Cake Tin even more formidable is that they were the last SA team to return from their fuller Australasian tour this year - only around a week ago.
Going back the other way again will wreak havoc with body clocks, particularly for someone like flyhalf and key playmaker Handre Pollard, who interrupted that four-match tour for an injury-enforced return home and then flew hastily back for the closing fixture against the Highlanders last weekend.
His air-miles situation must be healthy … if that is remotely the right word to use.
Still, the fact that several stalwarts, including the Springbok pivot, are on their way out of the Pretoria scene for foreign climes shortly seems to have instilled a tenacious, do-or-die sort of spirit in the camp; the Bulls oughtn’t perish wondering, even if they exit at the quarter-finals.
They have not played the Hurricanes this season, so it adds a splash of intrigue to the fixture.
Also in the Bulls’ favour, they have fared so much better in New Zealand, strangely, than they have at home to sides from that country in 2019: they earned successive draws on the tour with the Blues and Highlanders, whereas at Loftus they came an awful cropper against each of the Crusaders (45-13) and Chiefs (56-20).
What price a Sharks triumph in Canberra?
Certainly they will have to play immeasurably better than they did at Newlands, where it took a much-needed moment of magic and composure from Lukhanyo Am to breach the Stormers’ hitherto resolute defence in the 82nd minute and settle a grim scrap.
Hardly looking a picture of elation, the winning coach, controversial Robert du Preez, cut a largely dour figure at the post-match press conference where he had another stab at the Durban media, branding them “cockroaches” again.
It hardly set a tone of optimism for their trip to Australia, but the Sharks have nevertheless produced some of their better showings of a bumpy season abroad.
The unpalatable Capetonian derby also signalled the end of the Robbie Fleck head-coaching tenure at Newlands, the Stormers failing to cross the chalk for a single try somehow symbolising his time in charge: they ended ordinary season as the lowest try-scorers tournament-wide (34) alongside the basement Sunwolves.
In the final analysis, he was unable to break the hallmark stretching back to the Allister Coetzee years (though “Toetie’s” win record was a lot better) of entertainment value being a consistent problem at the ground …
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