Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town - The situation at the front of Super Rugby’s Africa Conference 1 has become tighter than some might have predicted … but the Stormers still seem to hold the aces for supremacy over the Bulls and a guaranteed home quarter-final at the finish of ordinary season.
By whipping the Reds 41-22 at Loftus and then seeing group-toppers the Stormers crash 29-22 to the Lions at the weekend, the Bulls closed the gap to one point on the Newlands-based side - 24 points plays 23 after seven matches each.
We go past the halfway mark in “league” play in the coming weekend, and the Bulls are on a bye whilst the Stormers tackle the very Queenslanders they saw off comfortably in Pretoria.
With eight games each to go in the conference, Robbie Fleck’s charges should probably be considered favourites to hang onto top perch, or at least be there when it really matters after the final round is completed on Saturday, July 16.
Don’t completely write off quite yet the possibility of the Cheetahs putting a spanner in the works by threatening a top-two finish in the group themselves, although they have only beaten the vulnerable Sunwolves (twice) thus far in the competition and are already more than 10 points back on the two pace-setters.
It really seems more like a ding-dong battle between the traditional “north v south” rivals to win the conference, and this writer’s own money remains on the Stormers.
The primary reason for that thinking is that the Bulls must face up to five of their eight remaining obligations away – and four of those overseas – whereas the Stormers have a four-four split.
Not only must the Bulls, next up, play three consecutive matches in Australia, but they are also yet to make a once-off overseas trek to play the Jaguares, almost certainly the stronger of the two complete newcomers to Super Rugby this year who seem likely to eventually claim a pretty big scalp or two in Argentina before the programme has run its course.
The Stormers, by contrast, have already done the Buenos Aires thing - they escaped with a tense, valuable 13-8 victory in late March - and have a shorter, two-match tour of Australia (just Force and Rebels).
Also to consider is that if the group-topping status is decided as late as the closing day of ordinary season in mid-winter, the Stormers being at home to the Kings then looks significantly easier on paper than Bulls away to Highveld rivals the Cheetahs.
One factor in the favour of Adriaan Strauss and company, presently unbeaten in six games, is the staging of the second derby against the Stormers on home soil on May 21.
The Bulls are vastly improved on the team which surrendered 33-9 at Newlands in round one, as some of their younger players are showing greater conviction now and the side’s play as a whole has become increasingly more multi-dimensional.
That Loftus revenge opportunity shapes up as one of those intriguing, “eight-point swing” type of affairs, and you have to imagine that a Bulls win will be imperative if they are to keep strongly in the hunt for the conference honours.
Once they have played the crunch game against the Stormers, the Bulls are back at Loftus a week later for another red-letter derby against the impressive Lions, immediately preceding the June layoff for Super Rugby.
That probably only adds ammunition to any belief that the Capetonians have the less burdensome run-in on paper; look at the respective schedules below and it is difficult not to feel that the Stormers have a greater number of likely “banker” fixtures ...
Remaining Stormers fixtures:
Reds (h), Waratahs (h), bye, Sunwolves (a), Bulls (a), Cheetahs (h), June window, Rebels (a), Force (a), Kings (h)
Remaining Bulls fixtures:
bye, Force (a), Brumbies (a), Waratahs (a), Stormers (h), Lions (h), June window, Jaguares (a), Sunwolves (h), Cheetahs (a)
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