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    S18: SA side could still top it

    2016-04-20 14:00

    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 “ditch”.

    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 overall.

    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 (a).

    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 …

    *Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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    Fixtures

    Saturday, 17 February 2018
    • Stormers v Jaguares, Cape Town 15:05
    • Lions v Sharks, Emirates Airlines Park 17:15
    Friday, 23 February 2018
    • Highlanders v Blues, 08:35
    • Rebels v Reds, AAMI Park 10:45
    Saturday, 24 February 2018
    • Sunwolves v Brumbies, Prince Chichibu Memorial Stadium 06:15
    • Crusaders v Chiefs, 08:35
    • Waratahs v Stormers, Allianz Stadium 10:45
    • Lions v Jaguares, Emirates Airlines Park 15:05
    • Bulls v Hurricanes, Loftus Versfeld 17:15

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