Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town - The chances have only increased
that if there is to be a South African winner of the Vodacom Super Rugby crown
this year, it may well come from the more difficult of the two domestic
conferences on paper.
Although the Lions and Sharks were handed
notably the trickier 2016 rosters than fellow local heavyweights the Bulls and
Stormers - by virtue of playing New Zealand rather than Australian teams in
ordinary season - it is beginning to look as though the first two are actually
more credible hunters for a first SA title success since the last Bulls triumph
in faraway 2010.
The latest round (Week 13) has seen further
encouraging gains for the sides coached by Johan Ackermann and Gary Gold, as
they ran in eight tries each in respective home thrashings of the Jaguares and
Kings on Saturday.
Both earned the maximum five log points in
doing so, and the Lions (37) currently stand two clear of the Sharks (35,
albeit after an extra game) and five ahead of the Bulls (32) in the collective
South African group.
By crashing 17-13 in the Pretoria derby,
the Stormers, who have not won in three matches, also suffered the indignity of
being elbowed out of the quarter-final berths as things stand - they are level
on points with Africa Conference 1 rivals the Bulls but trail because of their
six victories to the Bulls’ seven.
It is still reasonably wide open, with four
rounds left, in terms of who will eventually top each “Africa” conference and also
which one of the big quartet will miss out on the knockout phase.
But there’s a good case for arguing that momentum,
form and playing style point to either of the Lions or Sharks doing the country
proudest in the run-in to the silverware.
Warren Whiteley and company have run in 15
tries over the course of their last two dates, going one better in dry conditions
against the Argentineans than they managed in awful weather against the Blues a
few days ago.
It is that confidence with ball in hand,
and the vital architecture provided by Elton Jantjies at flyhalf, that makes
them possibly the prime SA candidates from here to deny still-rampant New
Zealand a second Super Rugby title in succession.
That said, if the Lions are on a two-game
winning streak, the Sharks are three from three at present (chopping down the
Hurricanes, Jaguares and Kings in that order) and will revel in the several
weeks off now - they have a bye ahead of the June Test window - before their
closing trio of fixtures against the Lions (a massive Jo’burg date on July 2),
Cheetahs and Sunwolves.
The Lions are riding far higher in the
competition than they are used to, as they are third among the 18 teams on the
basis of log points earned; their tally of 37 is eclipsed only by the Chiefs on
42 and Crusaders on 41.
A tempering note, however, is that their
next two games are tough all-SA affairs against the Bulls at Loftus next
Saturday, and then the Sharks (Emirates Airline Park) in the first game back
after the June Test period.
If they surrender the “eight-point swing”
game against the Sharks, especially, their own conference will become as tight
as Africa Conference 1, where the Bulls so needed - and deservedly got - their
home win against the Stormers.
Locked on 32 points each, you decide which
franchise will earn more points in the four-match run-in: the Bulls’ roster is
Lions (h), Jaguares (a), Sunwolves (h) and Cheetahs (a), whereas the Stormers
have Cheetahs (h), Rebels (a), Force (a) and Kings (h).
Of the four frontline SA challengers this
year, it is the Stormers around whom most doubts presently swirl, particularly
as their attack - some would mutter “what attack?” - looks too stubbornly blunt
and easy to read.
They dominated possession and territory and
had roughly double the number of carries at Loftus, yet more often than not ran
into a dogged wall of Bulls defenders who robustly drove them back and also
gave them all sorts of angst at both of the set-pieces and on the deck.
On an otherwise ho-hum night in
entertainment terms, Bulls players to enhance their credentials with urgent,
muscular displays included RG Snyman, Jannes Kirsten, Marcel van der Merwe and
captain Adriaan Strauss.
Still, based on Pretoria evidence, new
Springbok coach Allister Coetzee’s selection plans may have got foggier rather
than commanded more clarity as the visit by the Irish draws ever closer.
Instead several sprightly Lions contenders,
a bit further down the highway, only stuck their hands further in the air,
among them being Messrs Jantjies, De Klerk, Mapoe, Combrinck, Kriel and
our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing