S15: Wonky round for SA title hopes

    2018-03-10 22:22

    Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer

    Cape Town – It was just another weekend, and still an early one too, amidst the 16 matches before ordinary season is even completed in Super Rugby 2018.

    But the latest also has to go down as one doing little to suggest one of the four South African franchises is capable of going all the way to the title for the first time since the Bulls’ last triumph in distant 2010.

    The biggest gut-wrencher was the Lions, seemingly still the country’s best hope, somehow managing to turn a 28-10 advantage at Ellis Park -- in the 55th minute – into a last-gasp 38-35 upset at the hands of the tenacious and rugged Blues.

    Springbok captain Warren Whiteley leaving the pitch permanently just after the first quarter with knee discomfort did even less to lighten the general gloom. 

    All we could pluck from the relative debris was the Sharks’ comprehensive enough 50-22 victory at Kings Park over the Sunwolves – though remember that the Japanese outfit, now in their third season, have never yet won away from home, putting the result in some perspective.

    But at least the Durban-based side finally have one for the win column after a loss and draw to open their campaign, an important state of affairs considering that they now set off on a four-match tour of Australasia, starting with the Brumbies in Canberra on Saturday.

    Not yet looking quite as credible a championship force as their fans might have wished for by now, the Sharks then press onward to tackle the currently unbeaten Rebels, Blues and Hurricanes.

    But there were defeats, all damaging in their own ways, for compatriots the Lions, Bulls and Stormers this weekend, and the last-named two can be described as already on the back foot.

    The Bulls are one from three after their disappointing frittering away of a great chance to beat the rebuilding Reds in bogey city Brisbane (they led 14-3 at one stage but went down 20-14).

    It looks even shakier for the Stormers, who limp home from a winless, three-match tour now one from four and in the bottom five on the overall tournament table.

    Unlike the Bulls, however, Robbie Fleck’s injury-bedevilled charges have at least wrapped up their major overseas leg and will hope to regroup in more familiar climes over the next few weeks.

    The Bulls are in roughly the same position the Capetonians were at the outset of their tour: losing narrowly and perhaps unnecessarily to a limited Aussie foe first up, and then having to move to New Zealand for two much tougher further fixtures on paper -- Chiefs and Crusaders in their case.

    On the bright side for the Lions after their first defeat, they do remain comfortably top of the local conference, having banked a losing bonus point to move to 15 from four matches.

    But this was also potentially a very harmful blow to their aspirations of another strong seeding for the knockout phase, assuming they get to that bend in the road safely again.

    They still have to play three more highly-touted NZ sides in ordinary season: champions the Crusaders at home, and Hurricanes and Highlanders on successive weekends away. Botching it against the Blues would not have been in their script.

    Still, the Jo’burgers get a rapid chance to restore normal service as their next two matches are against the Sunwolves at home next weekend and then Jaguares in Buenos Aires before the roster gets stiffer again.

    Maybe the next fortnight, with a bit of luck on the medical front, will also be the only, ongoing period in which Whiteley is side-lined: he was still able to attend the post-match interview and seemed to think personally that he has a “grade one” problem that should mend quickly.

    There is a long way to go, and that is enough to keep the other SA teams interested in the possibility of still putting some pressure on the Lions in the group.

    After all, the Stormers have finished with their Australasian requirements, and the Bulls and Sharks will both have done the same before the midway mark of ordinary season.

    The Lions are the only SA team who must cross the Indian Ocean after the “turn” in roster terms … and that continues to look a formidable challenge, doesn’t it?

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

    Friday: Chiefs v Bulls, 08:35. Saturday: Highlanders v Crusaders, 08:35; Brumbies v Sharks, 10:45; Stormers v Blues, 15:05; Lions v Sunwolves, 17:15; Jaguares v Reds, 23:40. Sunday: Waratahs v Rebels, 07:05. Bye: Hurricanes

    *Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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