South Africa’s first win abroad this year – the Sharks’ victory over the Rebels in Melbourne – has seen Jake White’s men open a five-point gap at the top of the Super Rugby points table.
And they remain among the favourites to finish top of the pile in a few weeks’ time.
But wins by the Blues, Waratahs, Chiefs, Crusaders and Bulls – to go with defeats by the Highlanders and Brumbies – has left the points table a congested one, with several teams in with a chance of finishing inside the top six and a place in the play-offs.
The Sharks have 35 points after picking up their eighth win of the competition – and the first team from South Africa to win overseas in 13attempts this season – but behind them only six points separate the next nine teams.
Only the South African Conference appears to be sewn up, with the second-placed Bulls 11 points behind the Sharks, but in New Zealand and Australia there is still plenty to play for.
Three points separate the Brumbies, Waratahs and Force in Australia, while in New Zealand it’s even tighter: all five teams are still in with a shout of topping their conference, with five points between the first-placed Chiefs and fifth-placed Blues.
So, even if you believe the 2014 edition of Super Rugby hasn’t quite reached the heights of previous seasons, what is clear is that we’re in for a highly entertaining climax to the competition. Because even though the Rebels, Lions, Reds, Stormers and Cheetahs occupy the last five places overall, they are teams who will remain very competitive to the end and certainly have the potential to cause a few upsets in the remaining fixtures.
Whoever still has to face the Reds, Stormers and Cheetahs respectively will be extremely wary of what those three sides are capable of, especially the two South African sides who seem to be playing their best rugby at this late stage of the competition.
The Bulls, despite a winless Australasian tour, got themselves back in the hunt with a hard-fought win over the Cheetahs at Loftus on Saturday and a further victory this weekend, against the Stormers, also in Pretoria, will boost their chances even further.
They may not be as clinical as a few years ago, but the Bulls remain a dangerous outfit, especially on home turf, and should not be written off just yet.
The Cheetahs, too, are never to be under-estimated and, after going down at the weekend, will look for a quick reply when they host the Western Force in Bloemfontein this weekend. It’s a game coach Naka Drotske will feel his team should win, and they will start as heavy favourites, but then the men from Perth are a different kettle of fish this year and still have aspirations of making the play-offs.
Allister Coetzee’s Stormers, with Schalk Burger leading the way, won for just the third time this year against the Highlanders and while there would have been a huge sigh of relief in Cape Town, it was not a totally convincing showing by the hosts.
The good news though is they’re at least looking to play a bit more ball-in-hand rugby – and their match with the Bulls this weekend could be something to savour.
As expected, the Lions took a hiding from the Chiefs in their first match on tour. With little experience in the squad and still very try-shy, Johan Ackermann’s men could be in for a beating in the coming weeks.
Besides the north-south showdown at Loftus on Saturday, the other big match to look forward to sees White’s Sharks coming up against his former team, the Brumbies, in Canberra on Saturday. It should be a cracker.
Bulls 26, Cheetahs 21; Stormers 29, Highlanders 28; Waratahs 39, Hurricanes 30; Chiefs 38, Lions 8; Crusaders 40, Brumbies 20; Rebels 16, Sharks 22; Blues 44, Reds 14
Friday: Chiefs v Blues; Rebels v Hurricanes
Saturday: Highlanders v Lions; Brumbies v Sharks; Cheetahs v Force; Bulls v Stormers
Sunday: Reds v Crusaders - The Star