All at stake in Newlands derby

The Vodacom Bulls will strengthen their claim for a home semi-final if they down the Stormers in Cape Town this Saturday. JON CARDINELLI reports.

We’re fast approaching the business end of the Vodacom Super Rugby tournament, and at this stage it seems likely that the South African conference will be won by either the Bulls or the Stormers. This statement is based on the current log standings, as well as the teams' remaining league fixtures.

At a glance, it’s obvious that the Bulls are the best-placed South African team. Due to their recent victory against the Sharks, as well as several upsets in Australasia, the Pretoria side sit at second place on the overall log. They also lead the South African conference by two log points.

And yet, there’s more than one reason for Bulls’ fans to feel optimistic about their side’s chances of finishing the league phase in the top-two. The Bulls are starting to find form at a crucial stage of the competition. Should they extend their winning run in the next two weeks, they will be in a good space when they embark on their tour of Australasia.

There are some who feel the Stormers are in a better position having already completed their tour to the Antipodes. And yet, one has to factor in the challenge of performing in the first game that follows an overseas tour. Traditionally, these matches have been especially hard for returning teams. There will be no respite for the Stormers after the game against the Bulls either, as they will play the Cheetahs and Brumbies in consecutive weeks.

The Bulls have played five consecutive matches, but all five of those matches have been in South Africa. Their key players have been rotated during this period, either because of Springbok resting agreements or injuries. They will be the fresher of the two teams when the traditional north-south battle commences at Newlands this Saturday.

Following the epic clash in Cape Town, the Bulls will host the Lions at Loftus Versfeld. Wins in both of these matches will place them in a strong position to push for the conference title as well as a home semi-final.

After a bye in round 13, they will travel to Australasia to play the Blues, Chiefs, Brumbies, and Rebels. Two or three wins on that tour will set them up nicely. Their last game of the league phase is against South Africa’s worst-placed team, the Cheetahs, at Loftus.

But so much depends on their next game against the Stormers. The South African conference may be decided by a few log points, and a couple of points could separate the teams ranked two and three on the overall log. That will be the difference between hosting a semi-final and travelling overseas for a play-off. The Bulls have done well in the first half of the competition, but they need to make the most of their opportunity in Cape Town this weekend. A win will alleviate some of the pressure to perform Down Under.

Not that the Stormers will be wanting for motivation. A win against the Bulls will propel them to the top of the South African conference after 11 rounds. That is a result that will please the Lions and the Sharks, who perhaps haven’t given up on their conference title hopes just yet.

But the odds are certainly against a Sharks rebound. They began the season as one of South Africa’s big title hopes, but proceeded to lose six of their first 10 matches. It could all go from bad to worse on an overseas tour that includes matches against the Highlanders, Hurricanes, Waratahs, and Reds. Three of those opponents are in the play-off picture, while the Reds will be no pushovers in Brisbane.

Another thing counting against the Sharks is the fact that they’ve already played 10 matches, while the Bulls, Stormers, and Lions have all played nine. The Durban side will have a bye this week, and so it's likely that they will slip even further down the overall log.

Photo: Anne Laing/HSM Images

Post by