The Vodacom Bulls and Sharks will be hard-pressed to finish ahead of the Jaguares on the South African conference table, writes JON CARDINELLI.
There is no clear favourite for the South African conference title, even at this late stage of the season. Indeed, it’s hard to predict the results of the next four rounds with any degree of certainty, given the inconsistency of all five teams over the past three months.
What’s plain to see, however, is that the Jaguares have the ‘easier’ run-in to the playoffs. Given their success in Australia last year – as well as their most recent triumph against the Hurricanes in Wellington – they should expect to beat the Waratahs and Reds in the next two weeks.
Thereafter, the Jaguares will return to Argentina for the last two matches of the regular season. They may fancy their chances against the Sharks, and should be looking to bank a bonus-point win against the Sunwolves.
How crucial will bonus points be in the final standings, particularly points accumulated during these final four weeks?
The Bulls may feel that they can match the Jaguares and win their remaining matches. And yet they may fall short of their conference title goal – and the opportunity to host a playoff – if they don’t pick up a few bonus points along the way.
Winning four games on tour is going to be a tall order for a Bulls side that haven’t won more than two matches on the bounce in 2019. While they impressed in Melbourne last week, they will be under pressure to down the current Australian conference leaders in Canberra.
They should be targeting a big win against a misfiring Blues side next week. It’s hard to see them finishing the tour with a victory against the Highlanders, though. The Bulls were hammered by the Chiefs and Crusaders, and may struggle again when they front one of the top Kiwi sides.
The Bulls will get no sympathy from their South African counterparts. Indeed, the Lions, Sharks and Stormers will all be hoping that the Bulls – as well as the Jaguares – lose this weekend.
The winner of the derby in Durban may well finish round 15 at the top of the South African conference. The Sharks are under pressure to make that home fixture count, given that they will host the Hurricanes in round 16 before flying to Argentina afterwards. Their final regular game against the Stormers at Newlands won’t be a gimme either.
The Lions haven’t been given much of a chance of topping the conference. They impressed in their win against the Highlanders last week, though, and could make a big statement with an away win against the Sharks.
The Lions will host the Stormers and Hurricanes in subsequent fixtures. Banking five to 10 log points in those matches will set them up nicely for the final game against the Bulls. While the latter side will have the benefit of playing at Loftus Versfeld, they may be short on energy – as well as a few key players – after a taxing tour to Australasia.
The Highlanders should be desperate to prove a point against the Stormers at Newlands this Saturday. The Crusaders should beat the Blues in Christchurch and stop the Auckland side from strengthening its bid for a playoff berth. If the results in Christchurch and Cape Town go their way, the Highlanders will put some daylight between themselves and the Blues.
Do the Stormers have any more to give after delivering an almighty effort against the Crusaders? They’re unlikely to win the conference title from here, but may well sneak into the playoffs if they accumulate sufficient log points in the next four rounds.
The Stormers may need some results to go their way, though. A Bulls loss in Canberra and a Jaguares loss in Sydney would be a good start.
Three of their last four games are at Newlands, and they will surely target a bonus-point win against the Sunwolves. It remains to be seen if they will alter their tactics in fixtures against the Highlanders, Lions and Sharks.
At this stage, the Crusaders and Hurricanes look set to host quarter-final games. One would expect a third New Zealand team to qualify for the playoffs – and at this stage the Highlanders are the best bet.
The winner of the Australian and South African conferences will advance to the next round. It’s possible that three teams from the latter group may qualify for the knockouts, so there’s still a lot to play for in the next few weeks.
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