SA derbies: A dud ‘climax’
Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town – Anyone expecting the Sunwolves to knock over the
Sharks in their Kings Park stronghold on Friday night?
A glance at the fledgling Japanese franchise’s Vodacom Super
Rugby record on South African soil this season hardly suggests it will happen:
they are nought from four with defeats against the Bulls (50-3 last weekend),
Cheetahs (92-17), Stormers (46-19) and Kings (33-28).
So it would be near-scandalous, frankly, if the Sharks were
to crash in Durban, a result that would suddenly, seriously imperil their
qualification for the quarter-finals.
If we assume instead that Gary Gold’s charges will duly get
the job done, however, it will also signal an unusually lame-duck last pair of
SA derbies on a Saturday presumably intended upfront in 2016 to be excitingly
Should the Sharks have won, the Bulls – two points shy of
their compatriots as things stand – will be out of the running for the “extra”
(third) South African playoffs slot and the Sharks gleefully clutching their
ticket instead before the Pretoria-based team’s Bloemfontein kick-off (19:15)
against the Cheetahs.
The Bulls also cannot improve, regardless of their result,
on their second-placed status in Africa Conference 1 where the Stormers are
confirmed winners, whilst the Cheetahs will also remain third, ahead of only
the very distant Sunwolves, whether they win or lose.
That is hardly the recipe for attracting a much-needed
decent gate at the Free State Stadium, and much the same scenario will be
prevalent at Newlands where the Stormers (17:05) host the ailing Kings.
There is nothing at stake in that fixture, with the Stormers
already guaranteed third place overall in the competition – albeit helped by
the dubious “forced” structure -- and a banked home quarter-final.
They would be foolish not to rest certain overplayed
individuals like Pieter-Steph du Toit, and the only minor incentive for the
visitors from the Eastern Cape might be to try, against probably under-strength
opponents, to end on more competition points than the Sunwolves: both currently
sport a flimsy nine after 14 games each.
So the Saturday prime-time fare in South Africa looks like
being embarrassingly mundane, with television viewers who care about the
high-riding Lions instead gearing up for a red-eye late night (23:40 kick-off,
our time) when Johan Ackermann’s outfit try to secure premier overall finish
against the Jaguares in Buenos Aires.
The unsatisfactory situation in Bloemfontein (in all
likelihood) and Cape Town on Saturday only underlines the weaknesses
increasingly coming to the fore in the complicated, now 18-team competition –
both of the four-team Africa conferences clearly show two pretty credible
challengers, and two quite glaring also-rans.
Across the Indian Ocean the New Zealand conference, in stark
contrast, is set for a grandstand finish with four of the five representatives
still vying desperately for top spot and two Saturday derby crackers in the
offing: Crusaders v Hurricanes and Highlanders v Chiefs. They are all separated
by a mere three points.
In a demonstration of just how enviably “strength versus
strength” the NZ group is, the five sides boast an average this season of 46.4
points per team, whereas in Africa 1 the average dwindles to 28.25 and in
Africa 2 it is 29.50.
The Australian conference? Things are even more painful,
with an average points haul between the five franchises of 26.80.
There are rumbling in the New Zealand media already,
unsurprisingly, and it is hard to imagine that these won’t intensify if, going
forward in the revamped competition, teams from those shores continue to
dominate outrageously in the wins column yet in several instances be impeded in
possible advancement through the knockouts by the dubious nature of the format.
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