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?
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.
*Follow our chief
writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing