Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town - The Bulls and Jaguares ended the latest round of Super Rugby 2019 as arguably the two best-placed sides in the SA conference ... and how they fare in respective, four-match Australasian tours shortly could have a very key bearing on who wins the group.
While it is important to note that all five teams undoubtedly remain in the running - including for broader playoffs places - in this crazily fluctuating campaign, that pair are the healthiest-looking on paper right now.
Both won relatively tense affairs at home over the weekend - the Jaguares against the Stormers and the Bulls against the Waratahs - which meant that the Pretoria-based outfit moved back to the top of the yo-yo conference.
They are level on points with the Sharks (28), but Robert du Preez’s charges have played an extra game, so sport only five remaining pre-knockout fixtures to the Bulls’ and third-placed Jaguares’ (they are one meagre point adrift) six each.
On the plus side for the Sharks, who put up such a gallant battle against the title-holding Crusaders on Friday for a 21-21 draw, their Australasian tour is one match from completion, and it looks pretty winnable against a Chiefs combo flirting ever more dangerously with anonymity as far as any finals series hopes are concerned.
But with only two of their five remaining tussles earmarked for Kings Park and one involving the increasingly perilous trip to Buenos Aires in the second-last round, their position is perhaps not quite as buoyant as it may seem for eventual conference bragging rights.
Fascinatingly, then, the Bulls and Jaguares will spend several of the next few weeks not too far apart in Antipodean climes, and watching each other’s progress extremely keenly - the latter no doubt increasingly emboldened about the likelihood of winning the group for a maiden time.
The South Americans travel almost immediately, as they start out their quartet of assignments (like the Bulls, two in Australia and two in New Zealand) against the Highlanders on Saturday; after that, it’s the Hurricanes, Waratahs and Reds.
Before they step on a long-haul flight themselves, the Bulls first have to focus hugely on Friday night's potential humdinger against the 'Saders at Loftus, albeit probably bolstered by the return of veteran livewire hooker Schalk Brits from his suspension.
Just as beating the Waratahs was of enormous importance (they blew hot and cold in the 28-21 outcome, showing alarming defensive doziness at times but also exhibiting an illuminatingly commanding scrum), knocking over the Cantabrians - seldom over-awed by Highveld conditions these days - would also be manna from heaven ahead of the gruelling trek.
The Bulls are rostered on their tour against, in this order, the Rebels, Brumbies, Blues and Highlanders, and do not have a healthy recent reputation for prosperity across the Indian Ocean.
In the Jaguares’ favour, by stark contrast, they had a quite sublime quartet of results in their 2018 equivalent trip to Australasia, remarkably beating all of the Rebels, Brumbies, Blues and Chiefs.
It is difficult to imagine bookies and observers believing lightning will strike twice and the Argentinean national team in disguise going “four from four” there once again, but even a 50 percent tour record, say, could be invaluable in their stiffening quest to embarrass South Africa by stealing the conference.
If the specifically SA-based sides needed any further motivation to improve their consistency over the almost certainly nail-biting closing weeks of ordinary season, they should take note that the Jaguares boast the dream fixture on paper in the very last round: Sunwolves at home.
The Stormers, who at least snatched a late losing bonus point from their match in Buenos Aires on Saturday, are the only team in the competition enjoying a bye in the coming round and will feel they deserve it after a tough, notably travel-heavy spell.
Next weekend’s fixtures (home teams first, all kick-offs SA time):
Friday: Blues v Hurricanes, 09:35; Rebels v Reds, 11:45; Bulls v Crusaders, 19:10. Saturday: Highlanders v Jaguares, 07:15; Chiefs v Sharks, 09:35; Lions v Waratahs, 15:05. Sunday: Brumbies v Sunwolves, 08:05. Bye: Stormers.
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