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SA conference in for cut-throat competition

In 2011 57 points was the cut-off for the playoffs. Last year it was an even more brutal 59.

I’d hazard a guess and say this year, with competition so tight, it’s more likely to be around the mid-50s, but even so, some notable teams have a massive job ahead of them just to reach that tally.

Two Aussie-South Africa games in Australia at the weekend have had big consequences. A last-gasp Waratahs win over the Stormers was like one of those “14 point” tries people talk about. Instead of claiming four, the Stormers effectively lost three to an opponent they were competing with not just for the match itself, but also a place on the table.

That winning try was the result of a quite beautiful piece of deception from Berrick Barnes who held onto the ball long enough to draw Bryan Habana magnetically out of the defensive line, before putting the freakish Israel Folau through. Some might criticise Habana for hunting a non-existent intercept; I prefer to say what a piece of class under pressure from Barnes, what a great read of the situation.

It leaves the Stormers with the task of having to win nearly all of their last six games, because right now they’re giving the sixth-placed Crusaders an eight-point start, and the top team in South Africa, the Bulls, eleven points.

Their defence has been as good as we have come to expect, but they just haven’t been able to score enough points…their tally of 17 tries is the lowest in the comp, although to be fair they’ve played two less games than some teams, and one less than most. The injuries to Rynhardt Elstadt and Duane Vermeulen could not have come at a worse time, and indeed the loss of Vermeulen was crucial to the outcome in Sydney.

The Sharks are even worse off, after a hugely disappointing showing in Brisbane.

Yes, they are suffering from a terrible injury list…taking Bismarck du Plessis, Beast Mtawarira and Frans Steyn out of the side is a bit like the Crusaders losing Carter, Read and McCaw…by that I mean in terms of how their presence affects their side.

But even if they are missing their big guns, teams should still be able to make tackles, not give away needless penalties, and not drop passes. The Sharks are suffering in that regard, as are, chronically, the Highlanders, who succumbed to a spirited showing by the Kings, a fantastic comeback from their drubbing the previous week.

Early in the competition we in NZ marvelled at the controlled brutality of the Sharks forwards, but their dependence on the driving maul has their opponents forewarned. Lwazi Mvovo looks in great touch, but needs more opportunities.

The Reds were, it must be remembered, without their skipper James Horwill who is an outstanding and hugely influential player, so for the Queenslanders it was a good win, lit up by a counter attacking try of breathtaking brilliance.

Now the Reds are in South Africa and facing the Cheetahs and Stormers, who will be desperate. These will be massive games in the context of the season for all three.

The key is containing Will Genia, the best halfback in world rugby. Do that, and you contain Cooper, and as a flow-on, disrupt more or less the whole backline. But it is a lot easier said than done. Genia is so sharp. If he is allowed to run the game, then more often than not the Reds win.

The Cheetahs will be desperate for a victory. Two weeks ago I touted them as potential conference winners, influenced by the assumption that they would beat the Hurricanes, but they did not look after the ball, did not kick very well, and went away from their strengths, playing more laterally than we have seen all season. This played right into the hands of the Hurricanes who are a smash and grab sort of team that loves broken play.

Still it was an entertaining game, and Coenie Oosthuizen will feature heavily in our “Questions” segment on ReUnion this week. He is the sort of guy you’d like to have a dedicated camera on the whole game, so much fun is he to watch, and I thought he showed real class in his halftime interview when expressing his concern for Jack Lam who got bounced halfway into next week when he tried to tackle the human steam roller in the first half.

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But those losses for the Stormers, Cheetahs and Sharks have, a) given the Bulls some breathing space and b) ensured even more cut-throat competition in the South African conference over the final weeks.

The Crusaders had a weekend off and grabbed the free four points in the NZ conference, and I still think they are New Zealand’s best chance, because it was a real struggle for the other two contending teams, the Chiefs and Blues.

The Chiefs have an injury crisis right now in their back division, with Kahui, Horrell, Nanai-Williams and Anscombe out of action, and they were blocked by the NZRU from seeking a replacement from overseas.

They only just held on to beat the lowly Force, and are lurching towards the June break, with games coming up against the Hurricanes and Crusaders before a full month off, including a bye.

The Blues looked like they were going to flog the Rebels, with a four-try blitz in the first half, albeit with the help of (another) dubious TMO call, but then took the foot off the gas and needed a late try by the extraordinary Rene Ranger to ward of another spirited Rebels comeback.

The Australian conference is definitely stronger this year. The Reds and Brumbies are right in the race and the Waratahs are hanging in. A look at the log suggests the bottom end is still not strong….the Rebels and Force have only won four games between them compared to the combined eight wins for the bottom two in South Africa and seven in New Zealand, but they have pushed the best teams, with the Force beating the Reds and Crusaders.

There are obvious reasons for this improvement in the Aussie division. One is they have fewer injuries this year, two they have filled out their squads with some good imported talent and three, there is massive competition for places ahead of the Lions series which is bringing out the best in the players.

Finally I am hearing some interesting stories about the future shape of Super Rugby.

South Africa is insistent on six teams, New Zealand's Players Association is pushing hard for a later start, mid-March, and a way around the hole created by the June internationals, while there is talk of New Zealand and Australia pushing for Japanese involvement, which South Africa is not so keen on.

While some people you talk to say in the medium term it will end up being something very similar to what we now have, others are talking of something quite radical, with a far more global look, and more defined divisions that would restrict inter-conference play to the playoffs.

Two minor changes I would suggest are to do away with the nonsensical four points for the bye, and to consider eliminating the bonus point for a narrow loss. Why should teams be rewarded for losing, other than scoring four tries in the process?

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