Rob Houwing - Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town - Enough room to swing a cat? It might be a challenge with a hamster.
That is how desperately cramped, and relatively featureless, the South African conference in Super Rugby looks at the midway stage of ordinary season.
The latest round only confirmed how violently up and down the season has been so far … with the Sharks serving as especially glowing examples this weekend.
Er, did I say glowing?
Cancel that thought with some haste: they were utterly pitiful in the big domestic talking point of Saturday, succumbing 51-17 to the Jaguares before the disbelieving Kings Park faithful, and by seven tries to two.
Although an extreme case, the 71-point swing between this and their last result - the stirring 42-5 triumph over the Lions in Johannesburg only eight days ago - somehow summed up the broadly see-sawing fortunes of all five teams in the group.
Indeed, the hallmark of inconsistency and volatility in performance extends into the other conferences as well, although the New Zealand one at least has a noticeably standout team in it, as the Crusaders lead the next-best Hurricanes by a fairly gaping 11 points and are just as clear of any other outfit in the competition.
The gap from top (now Bulls, 23 points) to bottom (Lions, 18) of the SA conference is a mere five points, indicating that table-topping for best knockout-phase seeding remains wide open.
All teams in the group have played eight matches. As many as four of them - the Bulls (62.5 percent) the exception - boast exactly 50 percent win records, which makes their worth this year so difficult to gauge.
This week it was the turn of Bulls, Stormers and Jaguares fans to feel chipper, and supporters of the Lions and Sharks contrastingly glum.
Currently fourth, there is one strong reason to submit, as the teams negotiate the turn ahead of Easter weekend, that the Stormers may actually be best placed of the conference sides: they have played six of their eight matches away, so now look forward to a very minimum of travel and six further fixtures at Newlands to contemplate with relative zeal.
Although the Bulls head the table after their impressive, Loftus bonus-point victory over the Reds (32-17), they and the Sharks have the altogether more daunting knowledge that only three home games still lie ahead for them, and the additional perils of respective Australasian tours.
The Jaguares, who have just completed a heartening two-from-two South African mini-tour, and the Lions have an even split of home and away games for their own remaining eight apiece.
Here’s a thought: are the Argentineans headed for a first-time conference win? Don’t write that prospect off … not if they keep playing with the passion and pace that left the Sharks chasing shadows (or seemingly not even bothering, so lamentable was their first-time defence at times) on Saturday.
Durban is fast becoming a place of deeply pleasant memories for some of the longer-serving Jaguares personnel, bearing in mind the Pumas’ landmark 2015 Rugby Championship triumph (37-25) over the Springboks there.
They had a try hat-trick hero on that occasion - left wing Juan Imhoff - and here it was the turn of outside centre Matias Orlando to cross the whitewash with that degree of frequency.
But the Jaguares do have some toughies ahead, including yet another fatiguing overseas tour featuring games against the Highlanders, Hurricanes, Waratahs and Reds.
Nevertheless, if you are tempted to suggest that the SA conference race may now be between primarily the Bulls and Stormers (so wonderfully fired-up in that tour-ending Friday triumph over the Rebels in Melbourne) for eventual mastery, bear in mind that they meet in a fortnight in Cape Town, so one will take another tumble.
The Bulls have a bye in the meantime, but the Stormers get no immediate respite from their overseas exertions yet, as they entertain the Brumbies on Saturday with their body clocks possibly still a little at sixes and sevens.
That said, they should welcome back at a timely moment core figures who were unavailable at the back end of their Antipodean trek.
The Bulls are also slowly filtering back some proven customers, though, and lanky, fit-again lock RG Snyman was immense in open play against the Reds, roaming and off-loading like a languid basketballer en route to the player-of-the-match laurel …
Next weekend’s fixtures (home teams first, all kick-offs SA time):
Friday, April 19
Chiefs v Lions - 09:35
Sunwolves v Hurricanes - 12:00
Sharks v Reds - 15:05
Saturday, April 20
Highlanders v Blues - 09:35
Waratahs v Rebels - 11:45
Stormers v Brumbies - 15:05
Byes: Bulls, Crusaders, Jaguares
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