Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town - Flaky Friday for South Africa in Super Rugby ... but with the Sharks the really big talking point as puzzling under-achievers.
Let's face it, the Bulls going down 33-14 to defending champions the Crusaders in their final Australasian tour fixture in greasy conditions in Christchurch was a reasonably predictable event.
Less anticipated, however, was the gory weight of the Sharks' second successive loss on Aussie soil: 46-14 to a Melbourne Rebels outfit who had leaked 51 points themselves against compatriots the Waratahs last time out.
It was the Rebels' widest margin of victory in the competition yet - having joined in 2011 - and they also amassed more points than against any prior South African foe.
Those statistics say so much about the trough the Sharks, highly touted by some experts earlier this year because of their perceived sound depth in many positions, currently find themselves in.
They have now ended the "easier" part of their four-match tour on paper with just one, losing bonus point to show from their earlier 24-17 reverse to the Brumbies in Canberra, and it will be no comfort at all that the safari shifts onward to New Zealand, where both the Blues and Hurricanes will understandably be tipped in present circumstances to knock them over as well.
Should those results occur, the Durban-based team would have slipped to a miserly one victory (over the Sunwolves at Kings Park) from seven starts and an awful lot of restorative work to do if a playoff spot is to be somehow secured.
As it is, Robert du Preez’s charges, who continue to look at odds with themselves as much as anything else, remain as many as 10 points behind SA conference pace-setters the Lions - the gap will get bigger in the wee hours of Sunday if the Jo’burgers see off the Jaguares in Buenos Aires.
It is true that the Lions are the only South African outfit yet to set foot on Australasian soil this year; they must similarly contemplate two matches each in Australia and New Zealand a few weeks up the drag.
But as things stand, the Lions and Stormers (the latter having completed their main overseas leg, remember) shape up as best domestic likelihoods for credible campaigns potentially leading to finals series qualification.
So if the Sharks and Bulls only subside further - the travel-weary Bulls tackle the Stormers at Loftus next weekend - we could be looking at a two-horse race for SA credibility in this year’s tournament.
That would be a disappointment, considering the hope ahead of the campaign that scaling back to "four strong franchises" in the competition would improve the collective look of the South African challenge.
In the meantime, the Stormers have the task in the current round of beating the Reds at Newlands (Saturday, 17:15) just to earn a maiden SA victory over Australian opponents this year.
Have we sunk so low that even the Aussie conference, never mind just the ever-imperious NZ one, will eclipse the SA group in 2018?
Early signs aren't good: Australian teams stand on four wins and one draw (the Sharks' 24-24 Durban outcome against the Waratahs) from five bilateral outings thus far.
The string of wins is as follows: Rebels 46 Sharks 14, Brumbies 24 Sharks 17, Reds 20 Bulls 14, and Waratahs 34 Stormers 27.
In mitigation, only the 'Tahs so far have played in South Africa itself.
The Bulls warrant a stay of execution from major criticism; John Mitchell's rebuilding drive was always going to be a painstaking "process" and just getting back to the Highveld will be a positive step for them after a 0/3 tour - but one where positive signs did flicker at varying stages.
It is the Sharks who deserve the major, critical scrutiny; they are usually quite comfortable tourists but that doesn't seem apparent yet on this trip.
After their remaining two legs in NZ, here is the remainder of their roster: Bulls (h), Stormers (h), Highlanders (h), Bulls (a), Chiefs (h), Jaguares (a), Lions (h), Stormers (a), Jaguares (h).
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