Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town – Veteran Vodacom Super Rugby
followers hardly need reminding of how difficult it is historically for a team to
lift the overall trophy on foreign soil.
It has only been managed once on final day since
the advent of the Super 12 format in 1996 – back in 2000 when Andrew Mehrtens’
coolness off the kicking tee on an icy occasion weather-wise in Canberra saw
the Crusaders pip hosts the Brumbies 20-19 and carry the cup back across the
The annual message remains fairly simple:
if you genuinely aspire to winning the title, do everything you can to ensure
that your semi and the showpiece itself are staged on your own soil and most
ideally at home venue as well.
Super Rugby 2016 goes beyond the ordinary-season
midway hump this weekend, and on paper right now it looks as though a New
Zealand team – and that would arguably represent justice given the current
glaring supremacy of their conference among the four – will earn the key, prime
seeding for the knockout phase following completion of Week 17 on July 16.
Or will they?
If you lump all of the various groups
together, the Chiefs presently head the pack with 29 points, followed by the
Crusaders (27) and Hurricanes (25).
The NZ dominance is eventually checked in
“fourth” by the Stormers, who sport 24 points, with the Highlanders and Bulls
closely following on 23 each and the Lions hardly out of touch on 22.
We already know that, in terms of the
greatly reshuffled and complex structure this year, the winners of both Africa
Conference 1 and 2 will get (questionable!) rights to home quarter-finals and
that even if New Zealand sides continue to perform the best collectively, that
country will only earn a lone home ‘QF’ ticket.
Whatever the merits and demerits of the
format, the one unchanged aspect is the importance of trying to finish as the
side with the most log points going into the knockouts, paving the way for a
lucrative possible home-ground run all the way to the August 6 final.
The Stormers are five points off the pace
in that regard as things stand, the Bulls six and the Lions seven, which seems
like a fairly stiff mountain to climb for a South African team to muscle their way to top-placed finish
But if you examine remaining fixtures, with
our teams generally benefiting from playing more in the way of “lame duck”
outfits in the 2016 competition, the quest suddenly looks freshly attainable --
and brings back into focus the fears expressed in New Zealand media that their
teams will continue to detrimentally “cannibalise” each other in particularly
tough derbies and a greater strength v strength feel to their matches broadly.
Let’s compare, for example, the respective
eight-match itineraries still facing the pace-setting Chiefs and SA’s most
healthily-placed team the Stormers.
Find the “easy” matches, I challenge you,
in the Waikato side’s remaining programme: Hurricanes (a), Sharks (h),
Highlanders (h), Rebels (h), Waratahs (a), Crusaders (h), Reds (a), Highlanders
For degrees of difficulty, the rosters
still facing the Crusaders and Hurricanes contain pretty similar hallmarks to
the Chiefs’ one … in a nutshell, these three NZ franchises almost certainly will
have some hiccups along the way.
I’d suggest, by contrast, that the Stormers,
if they keep their eyes firmly on the ball in all senses, have some safer
bankers amongst this lot: Reds (h), Waratahs (h), Sunwolves (a), Bulls (a),
Cheetahs (h), Rebels (a), Force (a), Kings (h).
Similarly, the Lions still have a fair stab
at top-placed finish overall, especially as they leave our shores only once
more in ordinary season to tackle the Jaguares (a disappointing one win from
seven starts) in Buenos Aires at the death.
Much the same prospect applies to the Bulls
if their reasonably inexperienced troops can travel well very shortly and
emerge triumphant, say, from at least two of their three fixtures in Australia;
admittedly a reasonably tall order with the Brumbies and Waratahs among the
list on successive weekends.
For the relatively little it matters, I
have a sneaky feeling that the overall log-toppers will still come from the
Land of the Long White Cloud, despite the pitfalls contained in some of those
self-harming, likely high-quality derbies coming up in that country.
Yet because of the controversial structure
of Super Rugby 2016, a South African team claiming that handy perch is hardly
an outlandish prospect from here …
our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing