Losses for the Bulls and Lions in round 13 see the Stormers well-placed to finish at the top of the South African conference. JON CARDINELLI reports.
Two weeks ago, the Stormers, one of South Africa’s chief play-off contenders, lost to the Cheetahs, a regular feature at the bottom of the Vodacom Super Rugby log. In the aftermath of that defeat, coach Allister Coetzee lamented the Stormers’ poor attitude. Coetzee said his side needed to learn how to handle the responsibility of being favourites.
Fortunately for the Cape franchise, that loss to the Cheetahs in Bloemfontein may not be as costly as first feared. In round 13, two other contenders for the South African conference title, the Bulls and Lions, lost their respective matches as well as a chance to entrench themselves at the top of the local division. The Stormers failed to capitaise on a massive opportunity in Bloemfontein, but then so too did the Bulls in Auckland and the Lions in Johannesburg.
The Bulls did enough against the Blues to earn a consolatory bonus point, and that point sees them leading the South African conference. And yet, the odds are against the Bulls maintaining that advantage in the coming weeks when you consider their schedule is far tougher than that of the Stormers.
The Bulls had a great chance to win in Auckland this past Friday. A victory would have snapped a seven-game losing streak in Australasia, and would have ensured that they put some distance between themselves and the Stormers at the top of the conference. It also may have given them some confidence ahead of demanding games against the Chiefs, Brumbies, as well as the not-to-be-underestimated Rebels.
But after that loss to the Blues, who have been poor in 2015, the Bulls' confidence will be low and the pressure, to make up for that defeat, immense. History tells us the Bulls don’t tour well, and so it's unlikely they will do enough in the next four weeks to remain at the top of the South African conference.
But now we have a scenario where the Stormers are in a position of power. Will they squander it, or will they ram the advantage home over the next four weeks? If you look at their schedule: Rebels (h), Cheetahs (h), Lions (h), and Sharks (a), you’d have to say they will bank more wins and log points than the Bulls over the next month.
The Lions have surprised a lot of people over the course of this tournament, but it seems they may still miss out on a play-off berth. This past Saturday’s match against the Brumbies at Ellis Park was their big chance to stake a claim for a top-six place. They buckled under the weight of expectation, and are now in a position where winning their remaining games may not be sufficient for qualification. The Lions may need several other results to go their way.
The race for South Africa's top spot will not be the only point of interest in the Republic over the next four weeks. Indeed, the fight to avoid the wooden spoon is as fierce as ever. Both the Sharks and the Cheetahs lost this past weekend, and what this means is that there is still only one point separating South Africa’s worst sides at the foot of the local table.
The Sharks’ defeat in Sydney marked their sixth consecutive loss. This awful run of results equals the record for consecutive defeats, which was set by the Sharks side of 2000. Initially, they may have targeted the final tour fixture in Brisbane as a game they should win, given the Reds’ struggles in 2015. However, the Reds hit back in a big way against the Rebels last week, and will be no pushovers when the Sharks come to town this Friday.
All five South African teams will be under pressure this coming weekend, albeit for different reasons. The Stormers will be favourites to beat the Rebels, but they will need to go into that game with the right mindset if they are to see off the plucky men from Melbourne. The Bulls will be desperate for a result, or even a losing bonus point in Hamilton. If the Lions can pick up five log points in their battle with the Cheetahs, they will keep their slim play-off hopes alive.
As for the Sharks, they will be fighting to avoid a loss that will put them in the record books for all the wrong reasons. They need to beat the Reds to snap a six-game losing streak and salvage at least one win from this tour. The last time the Sharks failed to record a single win on an Australasian tour was back in 2005.
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