Cape Town – There’s strong evidence already to suggest that the Super Rugby conference featuring both the Sharks and Lions will be the one most worth monitoring locally as ordinary season in 2016 unfolds.
These two impressive starters – albeit that the Highveld side lost their unbeaten record in Dunedin last weekend – feature in stronger Africa Conference 2 and although the earthy Jaguares are quite entitled to raise a protesting voice, seem likely to be the pair of sides slugging it out most fiercely for first-placed finish among the quartet and important, attached rights to a home quarter-final.
The Argentinean newcomers have some especially formidable, repetitive travel across time-zones to do, whilst it will be a miracle if the Kings, the extra outfit already beaten heavily twice in Port Elizabeth and now headed on a thankless trek to New Zealand, are in contention for premier status toward the finish of the initial phase in mid-July.
Despite their mild upset at the hands of the Sharks at Newlands on Saturday, the Stormers, backed by a favourable roster, still seem safest bets to top Africa Conference 1, ahead of the slowly rebuilding, ex-superpower Bulls plus the Cheetahs and Sunwolves.
Whatever their limitations, arguably, as overall title contenders, remember that the Capetonians still carry plenty of personnel who are well-versed in the demands and pressures of marching through the knockout-phase gate, at the very least.
The Cheetahs and Sunwolves have just played out a 63-point affair in Singapore that was exciting only really for the fact that the Cheetahs fought back from a biggish deficit to snatch the spoils by a point – otherwise it looked too suspiciously like a slug-out between “second tier” combos in the enlarged competition.
So for consistent South African interest, the likely ding-dong battle between the Sharks and Lions (the former have opened up a four-point lead in the group after three outings each) for supremacy in their pool at the business end is where to fix your eyes most keenly on.
Particularly appealing, of course, is that they will meet in two derbies – the first in Durban on April 9, then Johannesburg at a much more advanced stage on July 2 – which could prove vital to which team emerges with conference bragging rights.
Or perhaps not at all … they may simply neutralise each other by each prevailing in the home clash, which is exactly what happened last year when the Sharks won 29-12 at Kings Park and the Lions roared back to edge the Emirates Airline Park return 23-21.
If that occurs again, it means that the make-up of their respective other fixture obligations on paper assumes greater significance.
Here the Lions have done some heartening, tough yards already by returning from their main overseas trip with two wins from three, including that statement-making victory over the Chiefs in Hamilton.
They now have a long stretch of matches within our borders, so can abandon thoughts of jetlag and homesickness right up until they close ordinary season away to the Jaguares in Buenos Aires – you would imagine coach Johan Ackermann is already hoping they may have done enough by then to seal the conference ahead of that perilous clash.
On that note, the two-game climax to conference activity for the Sharks looks pretty appealing if they are, indeed, pushing strongly for top spot by then: Cheetahs and Sunwolves in that order, both in Durban.
But it is just about the only pleasing aspect to their roster, universally recognised as a proper stinker for them this year.
Even their byes are not as nicely spaced as the Lions’ are, given that one of them comes immediately ahead of going into the tournament’s hiatus for the entire month of June, which is about as useful as offering a bakkie canopy for attachment to a motorcycle.
The Sharks also have to play a trio – the Lions had only two – of matches on New Zealand soil, against all of the Blues, Highlanders and Chiefs. It is tempting to suggest that if they were to fall short in all three, the Lions may just open up a gap that is extremely difficult to haul in.
On the plus side for the Sharks, I am going to stick to my pre-season assertion that they may well sport, in overall terms, the rosiest squad depth of all the South African sides, something that increasingly becomes influential as injuries and fatigue take a mounting toll.
Yes, Ackermann has an uncanny knack when necessary of turning seemingly no-name peripheral players into admirably solid Super Rugby competitors before you can even blink, but Sharks counterpart Gary Gold should be able, as we get to the key late stages, to infuse such already-proven customers at this level as Springbok flyhalf Pat Lambie and Jacques Potgieter, the title-winning flanker with the Waratahs in 2014, once free of current injuries.
Normally delighted to take a long-range prediction stab, forgive me for taking the coward’s approach before I tip which of the Sharks or Lions, both healthily on the “up”, outdoes the other in their conference.
I’m keeping my options open for a wee while longer, thanks …
*Remaining programme for each of the big protagonists in Africa Conference 2:
Sharks (currently 13 points from three games): Bulls (a), Crusaders (h), bye, Lions (h), Blues (a), Highlanders (a), Chiefs (a), Hurricanes (h), Jaguares (a), Kings (h), bye, June break, Lions (a), Cheetahs (h), Sunwolves (h).
Lions (currently nine points from three games): Cheetahs (h), bye, Crusaders (h), Sharks (a), Stormers (h), Kings (a), Hurricanes (h), bye, Blues (h), Jaguares (h), Bulls (a), June break, Sharks (h), Kings (h), Jaguares (a).
*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing