SA teams masters of their own destiny
Two conference titles are sewn up and the third is only still up for grabs in theory, but there is still plenty to play for as the league phase of the Vodacom Super Rugby comes to an end this coming weekend – and for the three South African teams in contention there is a lot to think about.
Of the Stormers, Bulls and Sharks, only the Stormers are absolutely assured of a place in the play-offs. They need just one log point from their final league match against the Rebels in Cape Town to make sure that they advance straight to the semifinals by finishing in the top two on the overall log, and the South African conference winners are also still very much in the running for top spot that would secure home advantage in all the play-off matches.
They will know early on Friday what they have to play for on the final weekend of league competition. The Hurricanes host the Chiefs in Wellington in the only game to be played on Friday, with the Chiefs needing to win with a four-try bonus point if they want to shut the Stormers out.
Anything less than that and the Stormers will go into the Newlands match on Saturday playing for top spot, with a win being enough if the Chiefs slip in Wellington and a four-try bonus point being the requirement if the Chiefs are victorious but get only four points from the game.
While the Stormers worry about more minor matters such as home-ground advantage, there are more weighty issues to be dealt with by the Bulls and Sharks, both of whom are still involved in a fight for survival. They are in the top six at the moment, and that means play-off qualification, but they can both still be overtaken by the Reds and Hurricanes.
At least though the two South African teams know that their destiny is in their own hands, with a four-try bonus point win being enough to shut out the other challengers.
And the way the Sharks played on Friday night against the Bulls, and judging from how most of the recent Bulls/Lions matches have turned out, they would both fancy their chances in their derby matches against the Cheetahs and Lions respectively.
TOO CLOSE FOR COMFORT
But it’s still very close, too close for comfort, and none of the teams can afford a hiccup in the final league match.
While the Stormers had the most to crow about as they celebrated clinching their second successive conference trophy with an ugly wet-weather win in Bloemfontein, it was the Sharks who produced the performance of the weekend.
Indeed, John Plumtree and his fellow coaches would have had good reason to kick themselves after the emphatic win over the Bulls. If they can win so easily against the Pretoria team, they have no business losing to the Lions, as they did just before the break for the international window.
Certainly the Sharks are the team that overseas sides should most want to avoid having to meet in the play-off rounds, as – their unexpected reverse to the Lions five weeks ago notwithstanding – they are the form team in the country at the moment.
The Bulls, by contrast, have now lost four of their last five matches and are starting to look more like the middle of the road contenders everyone expected them to be when they went into the season without the services of former star stalwarts.
An interesting aside to the Sharks/Bulls situation is the debate over which of their likely finishing positions, fifth or sixth, they would want to occupy.
At this stage the team that finishes fifth looks likely to clash with the Crusaders in Christchurch in the first play-off round, which is arguably a much tougher proposition than going to Canberra to play the Brumbies – particularly as the Sharks have already won in the Australian capital this season.
It will most likely come down to points difference, and there isn’t that much in it, so we could see the Bulls going into the Lions match, which is the late game on Saturday, needing four tries to qualify but not quite sure whether they want to win emphatically enough to push the Sharks into sixth position.
The Crusaders' win over the Chiefs provided the best match of the weekend with the worst being a toss-up between the wet-weather game in Bloemfontein or the Brumbies’ crucial but ugly win over the Waratahs in Sydney.
Chiefs 21 Crusaders 28
Reds 19 Highlanders 13
Sharks 32 Vodacom Bulls 10
Blues 32 Western Force 9
Waratahs 15 Brumbies 19
Toyota Cheetahs 6 DHL Stormers 13
MTN Lions 37 Rebels 32