Now it starts getting interesting
With four rounds remaining until the June break for the international window, the three different conference battles in Vodacom Super Rugby have reached a stage where mistakes start to become more costly and the nip and tuck at the top starts to become more meaningful.
The Bulls’ bonus-point win over the Rebels enabled the Pretoria team to displace the Stormers at the top of the South African conference of the first time in ages (the Stormers have been leading for most of this season and were ahead from week three last year).
There is only one point in it, but if the Stormers stumble against the Cheetahs at Newlands this coming weekend then the gap could start to become more meaningful.
Conversely, the Bulls, after only just getting home in a game they were always expected to win, now go into a much tougher phase of tour matches against the Waratahs, Highlanders and Chiefs.
If they lose two or three of those games, and the Stormers win at home against the Cheetahs and Waratahs and then in the return derby against the Sharks, the Cape team will be a lot more than just bonus points ahead of their arch rivals.
And if both the Stormers and the Bulls stumble over the next few weeks... well, don’t completely write off the Sharks, who won against the Highlanders and who have made it clear their aim is to be in a position where they can play the Stormers and Bulls knowing that wins there will put them back into the top bracket.
The Highlanders’ defeat in Durban has left them in a potential crisis as the attrition rate strikes. They lost three players on Saturday and by coach Jamie Joseph’s reckoning the change-room looked like a war-zone afterwards.
He had to ask the media before the Mr Price Kings Park press conference to be as brief as possible as “we have some serious injuries that we are dealing with”.
The Highlanders were already decimated by injury, with the team that played in Durban being a notably different one from the side that started the season so well.
They have now been passed by the Crusaders after Sunday’s narrow win in Christchurch in the match between last year’s finalists, and the seven-time champions are not far away from being in a position where they can strike for top position in their conference.
Yet with seven points between them and the front-running Chiefs, they are also in a place where they simply cannot afford to lose again. If they do, and the Chiefs keep winning, then the gap starts to get too big as the end of the season, while not quite being immediate, at least begins to approach the horizon.
It’s the same in the Australian conference, where the Brumbies, thanks to their unexpectedly easy win over the Waratahs, are now nine points clear of the Waratahs and Reds, with the latter joining the Sydney team on 26 points when they picked up a bonus point in defeat.
The Brumbies pick up four log points this coming weekend as they enjoy their bye, so the Reds really can’t afford to slip – and neither can the Waratahs, who host the Bulls on Friday.
That said, there must be concern in the Brumbies camp at the cruel injury blow that has now robbed them of the services of star flyhalf Christian Lealiifano.
The No 10 has been their most influential player, with so much of their attacking game revolving around the ease with which he takes the ball at the gainline.
Overall it wasn’t a great round of Super Rugby this past weekend, and the effects of the long season appear to be making themselves felt.
The Crusaders, after picking up momentum in their previous matches, took a step backwards and were quite poor against the Reds, who at the same time should return to Brisbane from Christchurch at least feeling they are competitive with the top teams again.
If they sneak to the top of their conference before the end of the competition and secure home-ground advantage for the first play-off they could yet be a major factor in the championship race.
The Bulls’ quest to join them in being a big player at the business end of the season will depend on how they react to the injury problems that seem to be an inevitable accompaniment to teams when they are on tour.
Although their game against the Rebels was the most entertaining 80 minutes of the weekend, they stopped short of offering their fans full confidence for what lies ahead.
The Cheetahs won against the Force but it was a game that confirmed that life without Johan Goosen won’t be easy, while in Durban, Sharks coach John Plumtree summed up the match when he said that he didn’t care how a win was secured, it was just important that his team won.
It was another way of saying that the match itself was maggots, which it was.
WEEKEND RESULTS: (Click on a result to read the report)
Hurricanes 35 Blues 19
Rebels 35 Vodacom Bulls 41
Chiefs 34 MTN Lions 21
Brumbies 23 Waratahs 6
Sharks 28 Highlanders 16
Toyota Cheetahs 17 Western Force 13
Crusaders 15 Reds 11