South Africa’s coastal teams will be jousting for top spot while the Gauteng sides enter a do-or-die phase Down Under, writes JON CARDINELLI.
How much do the Sharks have left in the tank? We will find out when they host two of the tournament’s form teams – the Stormers and Chiefs – over the next two weeks.
The Sharks have won five of their six matches to date – a record that includes a three-from-four return in Australasia. While they remain well placed to push for the South African conference title, it remains to be seen whether they can push through the fatigue after playing six games in a row.
The Stormers, of course, broke down in their fifth consecutive match against the Blues. John Dobson’s side collected wins against the Hurricanes, Vodacom Bulls, Lions and Jaguares before they were overpowered and outsmarted by the team from Auckland.
The Stormers have had two weeks to reflect on that result and, more importantly, a particularly underwhelming performance. One would expect the Cape side to make a physical statement in the early stages of the clash in Durban this Saturday. The Sharks would do well to brace for a backlash.
The next fortnight is massively important in the context of the South African conference title race. The Sharks will consolidate their position at the top of the standings with wins against the Stormers and Chiefs. In that event, they will head into their first bye knowing that they have put the most challenging part of their campaign behind them – a stretch including the tour to Australasia – and that they have scored seven out of a possible eight victories.
The Stormers have everything to prove. They struggled away from home in 2019, and were far from impressive in their narrow victory over the Lions at Ellis Park a few weeks ago. They have to make a statement when they travel to Durban and Buenos Aires over the next fortnight.
The Stormers’ schedule, of course, will become tougher as the season progresses. They need to get their campaign back on track with a couple of wins and build some momentum before they head to Australasia later in the campaign.
The Bulls scored an important win against the Highlanders last week. They will head to Australasia with some confidence as a result.
Should we expect the Bulls to bounce back over the next month or so and push for a playoff place in the latter stages of the season?
They’ve lost four of their first five games. They have an awful record Down Under and it’s hard to see them winning more than two tour matches this time around. They simply have to beat the Reds this week to keep their slim hopes of qualifying for the knockouts alive.
The Lions have fallen to the bottom of the South African conference standings following their second straight loss in Australia. It won’t get any easier for a young set of coaches and players when the Lions tackle the Blues and Highlanders in New Zealand.
The Jaguares won the South African division last season and advanced all the way to the final. Despite their recent losses to the Stormers and Sharks, they have the players and the gameplan to push for a playoff place in the coming months.
The Argentinians should fancy their chances against a lacklustre Highlanders side in Buenos Aires. They could overtake the Stormers in the standings if they beat the Highlanders and if the Sharks prevail in Durban this weekend.
Thereafter, a win against the Cape side in Argentina will strengthen the Jaguares’ bid for a spot in the knockouts and place more pressure on the conference-leading Sharks.
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