Cape Town – The piledriving, no-frills Stormers lead the way in the entire competition after round four, with a three-point cushion over defending Super Rugby champions the Crusaders … and boasting status as the only remaining outfit with a 100 percent win record.
Specifically, in the SA conference, though, the Sharks are arguably better placed behind them in second than the five-point gap may suggest … and playing the most dynamic rugby in the five-team group at present.
The key thing to remember at this stage is that the KwaZulu-Natalians are now three quarters of the way through their taxing, main overseas tour of 2020 and already assured of returning with at least a 50 percent win record – almost always a satisfactory return (and then some?) for South African sides visiting Australasia.
They will be in an even rosier position if they can prevail in the fourth and final match of their safari, against the Reds in Brisbane next Saturday: no other compatriot outfit has yet played a game across the Indian Ocean, although the Lions open their account against the Waratahs on Friday.
Saturday’s convincing enough 36-24 triumph over the Rebels in Ballarat, while still exposing certain engine-room shortcomings, saw the high-tempo Sharks register five tries for the second time in three tour fixtures – as with the earlier Highlanders encounter in Dunedin, a decisive factor in ensuring triumph.
Sean Everitt’s charges have now dotted 15 times in their quartet of games in 2020, the most of any team in the SA conference, and their easy-on-the-eye, counter-attacking thrust from deep is already a good enough reason to suggest they can be right up among the conference and broader title contenders this year.
The Sharks’ scrums and lineouts were again noticeably patchy areas for them in the sun-soaked “small town” game against Dave Wessels’ Rebels, but the attacking artistry of players like Aphelele Fassi, Makazole Mapimpi and Sikhumbuzo Notshe – supplemented by the more rugged, direct go-forward qualities of acting captain Andre Esterhuizen – proved just too much for the home defence to handle.
At least for the moment, however, the Stormers can bask in their loftiest view of all in the 15-team overall competition, a situation helped by the unexpected first setback – in Hamilton, too – for the Chiefs against the revved-up Brumbies.
Playing a tactically below-full-strength Jaguares, who clearly plan to throw a kitchen sink at next weekend’s Bulls tussle at Loftus, the Capetonians were less then enthralling in a 17-7 victory, although their watertight defence greatly aided the deprivation of a losing bonus point to the Argentineans, who had won the conference in 2019.
As the official player-of-the-match, veteran Welsh inside centre Jamie Roberts, stressed in his television interview afterwards: “We are still only at 50 to 60 percent of potential … we’re building … lots of improvements still to make.”
There seemed a strong likelihood at one stage that the Stormers would incredibly go a third full Newlands match without leaking a single point on the scoreboard, but that finally changed in the 66th minute (and after 226 at the ground in total) when the Jaguares notched a converted try.
The Stormers will now be favoured to go five-from-five when they entertain reasonably modest New Zealanders the Blues next weekend.
Not only that, but they could substantially expand their overall lead as all three of the teams immediately below them (Crusaders, Brumbies, Chiefs) will be on byes.
While a seemingly serious upper-body injury to stalwart hooker James Parsons late in the wet, lumpy-pitch Loftus clash with the Bulls won’t help their cause in Cape Town, the Aucklanders did serve notice that they won’t be prepared to simply roll over against the log-leaders: they seemed genuinely chuffed with their last-gasp steal of the spoils with an Otere Black penalty for a 23-21 outcome in Pretoria.
The result was a passion killer of note for the Bulls, who now stand on an ominous nought-from-three record and did not show many signs that they’ll have the quality or chutzpah to claw back to among the ranks of contenders this season.
Next weekend’s fixtures (home teams first, all kick-offs SA time):
Friday: Highlanders v Rebels, 08:05; Waratahs v Lions, 10:15. Saturday: Hurricanes v Sunwolves, 05:45; Reds v Sharks, 10:15; Stormers v Blues, 15:05; Bulls v Jaguares, 17:15. Byes: Crusaders, Chiefs, Brumbies.
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