S15 SA conference: Flimsy, but fascinating!

    2018-05-05 22:40

    Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer

    Cape Town - The Lions’ significant loss of steam, coupled with the unexpected charge of the Jaguares recently, has made a lottery - an unintentionally compelling one - of the South African Conference in Super Rugby.

    You can almost write off, already, any prospect of a team from our neck of the woods topping the overall table after ordinary season to tee up rights to a potential home final; it’s massively likely that honour will go to a New Zealand outfit, either of the Crusaders or Hurricanes.

    Those two have established a clear superiority in log points accumulation at this juncture, the defending champions boasting 38 from 10 matches (of 16) and the ‘Canes 36 from nine.

    The latest weekend has again produced awfully little evidence to suggest that a South African or Australian conference side will dazzle sufficiently in the “final straight” to top the combined pile by mid-July.

    By losing a second successive overseas tour fixture on Saturday (28-19 to the Hurricanes in typically windy Wellington), the Lions were left on 31 points from 11 matches, and still one tricky game to negotiate in NZ - Highlanders in Dunedin on Saturday - before heading home.

    That’s some ground to make up, even if the Otago side will be vulnerable to travel fatigue after flying back from a 38-12 thumping at the hands of the moody (though collectively quite magnificent on this occasion) Sharks at Kings Park.

    Having now lost five of 11 matches, the Lions look anything but the side of 2016 and 2017, competition runners-up each time.

    They do still, nevertheless, seem the best bets to at least win the SA conference, even with a no less modest pack closing in on them.

    Swys de Bruin’s charges must be grateful that they boast a seven-strong haul of bonus points: it is by that very margin that they lead the revitalised, now second-placed Jaguares (24 points) in the group.

    That said, Lions enthusiasts, and plenty of Springbok ones as well, are waiting with huge anxiety to learn the outcome of scans early next week to powerhouse hooker Malcolm Marx, who limped off the pitch in the first quarter at the Cake Tin on Saturday.

    The Argentinean side, coming off a fabulous Australasian pilgrimage in which they have beaten, in this order, the Rebels, Brumbies, Blues and Chiefs, have won as many matches as the Lions ... but cannot show a single bonus point.

    That drawback is also doing a lot to keep every other team in the wobbly SA conference still deeply interested in overhauling them, and possibly even the Lions too.

    With their full-house victory over the Highlanders, the Sharks advanced to 23 points from 10 matches and middle spot among the five sides.

    But the South African group is also the most open, in many respects, of the three conferences.

    The gap between top (Lions) and bottom (Bulls) is only 11 points, and the men from Loftus, even as they digest the disappointment of a clear-cut 29-17 derby defeat to the Stormers at sun-baked and healthily-attended Newlands, do have the comfort of a game in hand.

    By contrast, the margin between best (Crusaders) and worst (Blues) in the runaway NZ conference is 21 points, and in the Aussie group - Waratahs in charge, Sunwolves with the wooden spoon - it is an even more gaping 23.

    So if you want to look at things parochially rather than more internationally in Super Rugby 2018 from here, you might argue that a late-season, fierce “Currie Cup” scrap of sorts is taking shape: all five sides could still claim the conference, given a decent run.

    The only question will be whether any team is truly capable of putting a notable sequence together, even if the Jaguares of late have shown the way.

    The Sharks, for instance, are a serious enigma whilst the Stormers continue to unfailingly triumph at home, while still showing a sad, winless record away.

    What price the Jaguares continuing their hot streak and creating the prospect, embarrassing to many South Africans, of clinching the conference?

    Well, everything they do from here will be strictly within the confines, interestingly, of the group itself, as these are their remaining obligations after a well-earned bye next weekend: Bulls (h), Sharks (h), Stormers (h), Bulls (a) and Sharks (a).

    Next weekend’s fixtures (home teams first, all kick-offs SA time):

    Friday: Blues v Hurricanes, 09:35; Saturday: Sunwolves v Reds, 05:15; Crusaders v Waratahs, 07:15; Highlanders v Lions, 09:35; Brumbies v Rebels, 11:45; Stormers v Chiefs, 15:05; Bulls v Sharks, 17:15. Bye: Jaguares.

    *Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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