The next three weeks will reveal whether any of the South African teams have what it takes to beat the Crusaders and challenge for the Vodacom Super Rugby title, writes JON CARDINELLI.
Does it matter that there is no clear favourite for the South African conference title – even now, 11 rounds into the tournament? Does it really matter which team lifts that minor trophy?
We’re stuck with the conference format for another two years. What this means is that each of the conference winners are guaranteed a spot in the top three and ultimately a home quarter-final.
In that sense, it does matter who finishes top in each division. Whether the South African log leaders will take any confidence into the knockout rounds is another story.
It’s been a strange tournament in that no South African side has shown any consistency – be it in the local derbies or in matches staged abroad. There have been upsets aplenty – who could forget the Lions’ stunning success in Hamilton – but no sequence of victories or performances that have threatened the status quo.
On the other hand, for all the talk of upsets and inconsistencies, it’s been a tournament that’s delivered more of the same with regards to New Zealand dominance.
The Crusaders remain on track for a third-successive Super Rugby title. Scott Robertson’s charges have racked up 39 log points after 10 matches, and are seven points clear of the next-best side (the Hurricanes) in the New Zealand conference.
One cannot see another team winning in Christchurch this season. The Lions gave it their all last Friday and still got thumped by 26 points. What price does a visiting side – especially one from South Africa – have in a playoff against the red and black juggernaut?
Perhaps one of the local teams will land a telling blow in the coming weeks. Robertson’s men will host the Sharks before travelling to Pretoria and Cape Town in subsequent rounds.
These are the games that matter if you’re a South African rugby fan. These are the contests that will show how big a gap exists between the best side in the tournament and the likes of Sharks, Bulls and Stormers.
The Lions were handed a lesson at the gainline last week. They struggled to compete against the Crusaders, even though the Kiwis were without several frontline All Blacks.
The Sharks beat the Blues earlier this year, and may feel like they have a chance in Christchurch after winning here five years ago. The Crusaders have proved that they are a class apart, though, even from their Kiwi counterparts.
The Bulls scored a famous victory against the Crusaders in Pretoria in 2015. Two years ago, however, the Bulls conceded 10 tries and 62 points and their poor conditioning came in for criticism in the aftermath.
The Stormers have long battled against the Crusaders, whether they’ve played home or away. They conceded 45 points in Christchurch last year, and 57 the year before that.
Have those mental wounds healed? We should find out in the coming weeks.
These are the games that will show how far the respective teams have progressed. These are the contests that will reveal which individuals have what it takes to perform in a Test-like environment.
It was encouraging to see Curwin Bosch controlling the game from the flyhalf position in the Sharks’ recent win against the Waratahs. Similarly, Damian Willemse, Dillyn Leyds, Cobus Wiese and several other Stormers youngsters put on a show in the north-south derby staged at Newlands.
How will these players fare against the reigning champions, though? And what could these performances tell us about the coming playoffs, and even the coming World Cup?
Quite a bit.
A team that beats the Crusaders in the conference stage will have a concrete reason to believe it can beat the Cantabrians again in the playoffs.
What’s more, a blow against the Crusaders could well be seen as a blow against the All Blacks. The South Africans have to score a psychological point or two ahead of the World Cup pool meeting with the All Blacks on 21 September in Yokohama.
The north-south derby is always a fascinating event in isolation. And yet we need to forget about the results of such matches as they are no longer a measure of strength and ability to challenge for meaningful silverware.
Forget the results of the South African derbies and dispense with the talk about the favourite for the local conference title. The matches involving the Crusaders over the next three weeks will reveal exactly where South Africa’s best teams stand.
Photo: Martin Hunter / www.photosport.nz