S15: So which SA sides crack the knockouts?

    2019-06-05 12:01

    Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer

    Cape Town - You have to be eternally cautious over what you predict in sport ... but it can be deemed around 95 percent safe to say that the Jaguares will finish top of the SA conference in Super Rugby 2019.

    Chances of the Argentineans failing, in successive Buenos Aires matches, to knock over BOTH of the Sharks, this Saturday, and then the basement Sunwolves a week later? Pretty negligible.

    Just one victory, even without a bonus point, from either date - and they'll rightly be tipped at this point to clinch both - would take them to 45 points.

    Only one of the four trailing "South African-proper" sides could still get to that tally, at very best: the currently second-placed in the group Lions (35).

    But just to reach 45 themselves, Swys de Bruin's charges - not significantly more consistent than any compatriots this season - would have to earn full-house triumphs over the Hurricanes at Ellis Park this Saturday and then again in their Pretoria derby finale against the Bulls.

    That’s a tall order, especially given that the 'Canes began their two-match SA tour with that ill-tempered victory over the Sharks in Durban.

    Nor should we expect the Jaguares to step off the pedal complacently in the closing fortnight of ordinary season, as they are still fighting to retain second position to the Crusaders overall, which would bring the guarantee of a home semi-final should they safely negotiate their quarter-final.

    As things stand, the Australian conference-leading Brumbies remain a threat to nudging them down into less favourable third; they are only two points shy of the Jaguares on 39 and have remaining tussles against the Waratahs (away) and Reds (home).

    On the assumption that the Jaguares will be home and dry for the group honours, it leaves a titanic struggle between all four SA-based sides to determine which (and, indeed, how many) also progress to the eight-team KO phase.

    An increasingly likely top-four finish of Crusaders, Jaguares, Brumbies and Hurricanes, in that order, also means that quartet snap up the handy home quarter-final berths.

    Against that backdrop, anywhere between one and three of the South African-based sides, most realistically, could yet make up the other four spots, albeit all with the inconvenience of away travel for their knockout tussles.

    They will all have to fare as well as they possibly can over the next two rounds - not unanimously, though, because there are a few neutralising, dog-eat-dog derbies - while hoping that other results in the competition go their way too.

    A personal hunch is that a maximum of two of the four strictly SA-based outfits will accompany the Jaguares into the finals series, keeping in mind that as many as 13 of the 15 teams tournament-wide stay mathematically in the race, entering the second-last round.

    Only the especially distant Sunwolves (12 points) and the Reds (24) are definite goners, even if the 13th-placed Blues (28) would need resounding away wins against both the Reds and Hurricanes and lots of other favourable outcomes during their run-in to squeeze through.

    If the Lions can beat the Hurricanes (though doing it with a bonus point seems optimistic?) this weekend, they should end the conference as runners-up to the Jaguares and be healthily placed at the same time to make the cut ... perhaps ending on 40 points even if just a losing bonus point were to come their way in the Loftus closing game.

    But if they crash on Saturday, it fascinatingly creates "open season", pulling the bottom-placed Stormers right back into the mix, for instance, if they beat the Sunwolves at Newlands - for all their injury woes, that really should happen.

    The Sharks are an interesting case in the two-round climax: their home form has been seriously poor this year, whereas they have generally been more competitive and focused on the road.

    Is it a strange advantage of sorts, then, that they negotiate the final straight with successive fixtures in Buenos Aires (though that's not ideal for time-zone-fatigue and other reasons) and Cape Town?

    This season has been so volatile; maybe you should examine the roster below and work out the closing group pecking order for yourself ...

    Remaining games for the SA conference sides:

    Jaguares (41 points): Sharks (h), Sunwolves (h)

    Lions (35 points): Hurricanes (h), Bulls (a)

    Bulls (34 points): Highlanders (a), Lions (h)

    Sharks (33 points): Jaguares (a), Stormers (a)

    Stormers (30 points): Sunwolves (h), Sharks (h)

    *Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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    Friday, 21 June 2019
    • Crusaders v Highlanders, Christchurch Stadium 09:35
    Saturday, 22 June 2019
    • Jaguares v Chiefs, Estadio Jose Amalfitani 00:05
    • Hurricanes v Bulls, Westpac Stadium 09:35
    • Brumbies v Sharks, GIO Stadium 12:05
    Friday, 28 June 2019
    • TBC v TBC, TBC 14:00


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