S18: Oz weakness aids SA drive

    2016-04-26 16:01

    Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer

    Cape Town – It is pretty seldom that you can brand Australia “allies” in any South African quest for sporting success; more usually they are a heart-breaking impediment.

    Nor would it be accurate to suggest that Australian teams are actively attempting to boost the SA bid for a first SA Vodacom Super Rugby title success since the installation of conference systems in 2011. (Doesn’t that last Bulls silverware grab of 2010 at Orlando Stadium now seem so scarily distant?)

    Unintentionally, however, they are helping our cause as things stand, roughly at the midway mark of the 2016 ordinary season.

    There is an increasingly bright chance, thanks to collective frailties in the Aussie conference, that a South African side will be in a position to host a home semi-final, assuming that they get past one of two guaranteed home quarter-finals for the log-topping teams from the Africa conferences.

    If that happens, not only is it an improvement on last year, when no South African franchise even cracked the last four, but also 2014 when the Sharks had to travel to New Zealand for a semi and were duly smashed 38-6.

    The Bulls were our last home semi-finalists in 2013, but they were nosed out 26-23 at Loftus by a Brumbies team of the short Jake White coaching era in Canberra.

    It is difficult not to feel that at least one home semi this year will be necessary if a South African side is to break the title drought in these parts: get through that and it only requires one smash-and-grab, one out-of-this-world performance (most likely in New Zealand, you’d imagine) in the August 6 showpiece to end that six-year barrenness.

    Of the established trio of southern hemisphere superpowers, South Africa is the only one not to have won Super Rugby yet in the conferences era – New Zealand boasts the Chiefs twice (2012 and 2013) and Highlanders (2015), whilst Australia can trumpet the Reds (2011) and Waratahs (2014).

    The chances are currently favourable that a “top two” finish will occur for South Africa this year, given that the prime first and second of the eight seedings for the knockouts seem destined – unless there is a sudden, pronounced Aussie wake-up – for NZ and SA hands, in either order.

    It is the Australian section of the competition that is labouring the most, as evidenced by the fact that the leading NZ (and overall) team, the Chiefs, boast 33 points, the top SA side (Stormers) have 28 and the best-performing Aussie outfit, the Melbourne Rebels, lag some way behind with 22.

    Further confirmation that the Aussies are largely floundering in 2016 comes when you tally up total points managed by NZ, SA and Aussie teams thus far, and then put averages to them: the five Kiwi sides have amassed 131 points between them (average 26.20), the six SA teams 115 (average 19.16) and the five Australian franchises only a pretty lamentable 74 (average 14.80).

    The Rebels may be relative surprise packages Down Under this year, but even their present mastery of their conference would see them placed a humdrum eighth overall under the old, single-table system pre-2011.

    Four NZ teams (Chiefs, Crusaders, Hurricanes and Highlanders) and three South Africans (Stormers, Lions, Bulls) boast more points than the Melbourne outfit at this bend in the road.

    What’s been surprising has been the decline this season of the Waratahs, champions only two years back, and the normally highly competitive Brumbies, even if there is still time left for revival in each case.

    Of course earning possible supremacy over the Australian participants in the competition hardly gives any one of the Stormers, Lions, Bulls and Sharks some sort of blissful, freebie pass to the title … expect a couple of juggernauts from the land of the long white cloud to stand very spiritedly in the way, as has become the norm.

    But it could help a fair bit …

    *For the first time in Super Rugby history this weekend, six SA teams will be in action against overseas foes in a single round.

    *Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing


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