The Vodacom Bulls have taken a significant lead in what is shaping up to be a two-horse race for the South African conference title. JON CARDINELLI reports.
Round 12 served up a series of Australasian results that certainly helped South Africa’s best-placed teams. Ultimately, it was the Bulls who managed to take advantage. Nobody can argue that they deserve to be leading the SA conference at this stage of the tournament.
The Waratahs upset the Brumbies in Canberra, and this result has seen the Brumbies dropping from second to third in the overall standings. The Hurricanes extended their lead at the top of the log, but what was more important from a South African point of view was that the Crusaders lost. While the Cantabrians have a reputation for late-season surges, it will concern Kiwi supporters to see them languishing at ninth after 12 rounds.
Then there was the upset in Melbourne, where the Rebels outplayed the Chiefs, another strong play-off contender. The stage was set for both the Bulls and Stormers to win in Pretoria and Bloemfontein respectively, and improve on South Africa's representation in the tournament’s top six.
The Bulls not only beat the Lions, but earned an extra log point for their four-try performance. They will enjoy a bye this week knowing they have a four-point lead over their closest inter-conference rivals, the Stormers.
A lot has been made about their coming tour to the Antipodes, where they will face the Blues, Chiefs, Brumbies and Rebels in successive weeks. But perhaps what is significant is they will go into that four-game block knowing their destiny is still in their own hands.
By contrast, the Stormers blew a massive opportunity in Bloemfontein. The performance against the Cheetahs lacked urgency. The management of the substitution bench was poor and the goal-kicking even worse.
Instead of accumulating four and possibly even five log points, which was within their grasp considering the Cheetahs’ shocking defensive record, the Stormers failed to bank as much as one. It’s the kind of missed opportunity that teams live to regret at the end of the league stage where one or two points mean the difference between hosting a play-off and travelling overseas for the do-or-die fixture.
They will be under pressure to bounce back when they host the Brumbies this Saturday. The Bulls will have a bye, and so the Stormers could overtake the Pretoria side at the top of the South African conference. But even if that were to transpire, the Bulls would still have a game in hand. At this stage, the Bulls are in a better position.
The Stormers can’t afford to lose. They may have a favourable schedule for the remainder of the league phase (Brumbies at home, bye, Rebels, Cheetahs and Lions all at home, and Sharks away), but they will be wary of the current gap between themselves and the Bulls. If the Stormers lose this week, it will alleviate the pressure on Victor Matfield and co to win big in Australasia.
One of these teams will win the South African conference title, and thus book a play-off place. The other three SA teams are likely to finish the competition as also-rans.
The Lions' limitations may be exposed in the coming weeks when key players break down due to fatigue and injuries. And their assignment only gets tougher from hereon in, with four of their five remaining matches against strong play-off contenders (Highlanders, Brumbies, Waratahs and Stormers).
The Sharks are in free-fall. They could hit rock-bottom this coming week when they travel to Wellington to play the tournament’s form team, the Hurricanes. When the competition’s best attack meets the competition’s worse defence, well, you get the picture. It will get messy.
Perhaps the only ambition for teams like the Sharks and Cheetahs at this stage is to finish the league in the top 10. The Sharks are currently 11th in the standings, and the Cheetahs 12th.
It's an unfamiliar position for the Sharks, and especially disappointing given their relative success in 2014 (SA conference winners and losing semi-finalists). The log is, however, a true reflection of their performances in 2015.
They would need to win all five of their remaining games just to finish the league with a winning record (nine wins in 16 matches). Given their recent results and the dire quality of their performances, that outcome seems unlikely.
The decline of the Sharks presents an opportunity for the Cheetahs. The Sharks still have to play three more matches in Australasia, while the Cheetahs will finish the league in South Africa. Three of the Cheetahs’ last five games will be played against South African opponents. If one is to judge by their most recent showing and win against the Stormers, the central franchise will be competitive in those derby matches.
The Cheetahs can’t make the play-offs, but they can finish higher on the log than the Sharks. They can ensure that the Durban-based franchise claims the South African wooden spoon.
The 2015 season has already witnessed a number of gutting lows for the Sharks, but this nightmare can get worse and they are in danger of finishing dead last in the conference. The last time they finished at the bottom of the South African Super Rugby pile was in 2005.
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