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    S18: SA’s best four hanging in

    2016-05-09 13:00

    Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer

    Cape Town – Are you the glass-half-full or glass-half-empty type?

    Whichever your inclination, a glance at collective South African fortunes after week 11 of Vodacom Super Rugby provides a very confusing picture, thrusting your emotions in all directions.

    On the positive side of things, unusually pronounced Australian weakness – not to mention the maiden-season struggles of the Sunwolves and Jaguares – is keeping our country’s top four franchises (Stormers, Bulls, Lions and Sharks) quite rosily in the title hunt.

    When you think about it, that’s no bad development, considering that the struggling Cheetahs and Kings were never tipped to be remotely in the trophy-seeking picture this season anyway.

    Given the tournament stipulation that an Australian team has to finish among the top four, regardless of number of log points, and bank a home quarter-final, perhaps the best way to assess the frailty of their conference at present is to pretend the pecking order on the overall table is determined in the conventional way applied to so many sports.

    In other words, that number of points is the foremost determinant of log position – a scenario many in rugby would consider the most just anyway.

    On that basis, no Australian team would currently crack the top eight, as the best they can manage right now is the Brumbies’ 25 points from 10 games and the Waratahs’ 25 from nine.

    All of the quartet of stronger South African franchises are ahead of that tally: the Stormers have 29 from nine, Bulls 28 from nine, Lions 27 from nine and Sharks 26 from 10.

    But that is where the good news ends a bit abruptly: those four SA teams occupy positions five to eight in the top eight for pure log points gathered -- with all of berths 1-4 occupied by sides from the runaway superior New Zealand conference.

    The Crusaders have 37 points from nine matches, Chiefs 37 from 10, Highlanders 32 from 10 and Hurricanes 31 from 10.

    So if you took away the controversial, conference-system stipulations in deciding the pecking order, you would have NZ teams currently all commanding home quarter-finals, and all against SA foes.

    These would be the last-eight matches under an “orthodox” league system right now: Crusaders v Sharks, Chiefs v Lions, Highlanders v Bulls, Hurricanes v Stormers.

    But this is not a perfect world, if you like, and with the guarantee instead that two “Africa” conference winners must get home quarter-finals and one spot going to an Aussie team – leaving just one home tie for a NZ outfit – this would instead by the quarters line-up if decided immediately: Crusaders v Bulls, Stormers v Hurricanes, Lions v Highlanders, Brumbies v Chiefs.

    Only the Crusaders would be getting a fair deal, really, as the Stormers would be hosting the ‘Canes despite being two points inferior to them, the Lions entertaining the Highlanders despite trailing them by five, and – most damning of all – the Brumbies being at home to the Chiefs in “Fortress Canberra” despite a massive deficit of 12 points on them as things stand.

    But that is how the new, 18-team system was agreed upon by all of the various SANZAAR board-roomers and, at least for the moment, it is helping several of South Africa’s better teams, and a couple of Aussie outfits, to look better than they probably are.

    That said, if the obvious gap in class between the NZ conference and all the others stays that way or only blows out further, expect rising public and media disenchantment in those parts before the 2016 season has run its course …

    *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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