DURBAN - The South African Super Rugby Conference at this stage looks like a one-horse race, with the Lions 11-point leaders over the Sharks, who are on 14 points but have a game in hand.
But as the venerable Sharks coach Ian McIntosh used to stay: “Don’t judge until everybody has toured.”
The Lions will be the last SA team to tour and while they have had a good touring record of late, they have some toughies coming up, especially in New Zealand.
In the meantime there is a series of home derbies coming up which might make or break some teams.
Can the Sharks kick on and convert overseas form into home victories? Can the Stormers rediscover their mojo and beat the Sharks next week in Durban? Can the Bulls storm up the ladder with victories over the Sharks this weekend and two weeks later over the Stormers at Newlands?
The Bulls are on just 9 points but the vagaries of the draw have meant two byes for them.
They are two games behind the other SA teams and, having toured, are in a good place for a full-on attack on the points table.
A Bulls win at Kings Park on Saturday will be huge boost in terms of log points and psychological damage either way.
The Sharks, having played such refreshing rugby in New Zealand over the last fortnight need to kick on, and their fortnight of home derbies have to be won for their morale after having hit form in New Zealand.
A Bulls win in Durban this week could start a strong challenge from the Pretoria team, whose last game was a win in Pretoria over the Stormers, and let’s not forget that the Bulls beat the Hurricanes at Loftus.
The Sharks and Bulls are playing very similar rugby - mobile but physical forwards that are now off-loading before they consider taking contact, and backs having a full go from front-foot ball.
The Stormers’ visit to Kings Park next week is taking on monumental significance for the Capetonians, who are yet to win away from Newlands this year. It is true they have had a horror draw but if they can’t pick up points on the road, they are not going to make the quarter-finals.
The Stormers have an overdue break this week and next week will throw the kitchen sink at the Sharks at Kings Park, the venue where they won the Currie Cup not too long ago.
So this next fortnight in Durban is going to either make or break the Sharks, it will give some indication of how good the Bulls are, and it could pretty much end the overall challenge of the Stormers.
Key to how it all pans out is how well the Lions do on the road. A couple of wins will make them hard to catch in the SA Conference but if they have a losing tour, the Sharks, Bulls and Stormers can do some significant catch-up on the log.
In the second half of the competition, there will be another series of derbies, with the teams who played away from home now hosting their rivals.
The Stormers vs Bulls game in three weeks’ time at Newlands could have plenty riding on it.
Two of the Sharks’ last three games will be away to the Lions and Stormers. Who knows how the Conference will look by that stage but one thing is for certain: it is going to be the home derbies that decide the SA Conference.