S15: SA, Oz groups look so ‘sloppy seconds’

    2018-05-12 21:28

    Rob Houwing - Sport24 chief writer

    Cape Town – The SA conference is like that garish beach-scene painting Aunty Mabel so doted on for years before she died … nobody in the family wants it.

    Mind you, there’s some pretty distasteful “art” in the Australian bunch, too … the only compelling oil on canvas, increasingly so, is the New Zealand one.

    The latest round of Super Rugby 2018 was marked yet again primarily by a tightening stranglehold from NZ franchises, several of whom seem destined to be absurdly cruel victims of the tournament structure disallowing them from ending ahead of the SA or Aussie group winners even if they sport a significantly superior haul of log points.

    NZ teams clean-swept games against outfits from other countries on Saturday, the Highlanders taking out the fast-fading -- but still SA “best” -- Lions in Dunedin, a weakened Chiefs being too wily for the Stormers at Newlands and the Crusaders staging a thrilling recovery from 0-29 down to pip the Waratahs 31-29 in Christchurch.

    Coupled with the Hurricanes’ anticipated Friday derby victory over the Blues, the current situation sees four NZ teams effectively bossing the overall table in terms of points accumulated: Crusaders on 42, Hurricanes 41, Highlanders 32 and Chiefs on 31.

    Yet with the mandatory need for the other two conferences to have a lofty say in proceedings, the Lions (31) occupy second spot and the Waratahs (26) third; they should really be fifth and sixth respectively.

    Fuelled by the collective, rank mediocrity of its five participants, including the relatively surprise-packet Jaguares from Argentina, the SA conference does, at least, keep building a head of steam in the almost “second division” scrap for internal supremacy.

    More than any of the other two groups (in New Zealand, for instance, the lowest-lying Blues are a gaping 14 points shy of the fourth-placed Chiefs), the South African one is truly still up for grabs – all five franchises cannot be written off for ending at the helm.

    In developments on Saturday that did absolutely nothing, once more, to suggest that a side from the conference is capable of vaulting clear to clinch top seeding after ordinary season this year – it is now a seriously forlorn likelihood and may quite soon be buried mathematically – the SA claustrophobia only cranked up a notch.

    By surrendering a sixth match from 12, which seems to say so much about the decline of the competition runners-up for the two previous years, the Lions could not bank even a losing bonus point in Otago, and return home from their tour (one win from four) in the knowledge that three teams in their conference are now all within seven points of them, and each with a game in hand.

    That will be enough to keep all of the Jaguares, Bulls and Sharks (24 points from 11 outings in each instance) still interested in reining them in, whilst the now-basement Stormers (23 from 12) also can’t quite be deemed lame ducks yet.

    Some would say it is a really damning statement about present South African rugby that the Jaguares, the “guests” in the conference, are the only team in it boasting more wins than losses (6-5).

    But they are impeded, and limited to mid-table overall, by the fact that they are the only team in the competition without a single bonus point at this stage.

    The major trend among the four SA-specific teams is the abject lack of consistency, even from one week to the very next.

    So imperious against the Highlanders in Durban last weekend, the Sharks were deservedly beaten this time at Loftus (39-33) although the consolation was that it was a rousing, high-tempo and often constructive contest.

    For John Mitchell’s up-and-coming Bulls, the result was a banishment of their memories of Newlands a week before, when the Stormers outmuscled them in another derby.

    But the Capetonians, for their part, also displayed split-personality tendencies by showing a blunt, all too predictable attacking script against the Chiefs and paying a price for it.

    They were also bedevilled by their scrum, so potent a week earlier, not coming to the party against opponents missing some gnarly regular members of their front-five, especially, but playing as though their lives were at stake at the set-piece.

    A New Zealand winner of Super Rugby again this year? It seems almost set in stone …

    Next round of fixtures (home teams first, all kick-offs SA time):

    Friday: Hurricanes v Reds, 09:35. Saturday: Sunwolves v Stormers, 07:15; Blues v Crusaders, 09:35; Waratahs v Highlanders, 11:45; Sharks v Chiefs, 15:05; Lions v Brumbies, 17:15; Jaguares v Bulls, 23:40. Bye: Rebels.

    *Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

    Read More On:  super rugby rugby

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