Cape Town – The unsung Cheetahs, their scrum gaining increasingly menacing traction as the game dragged on at Loftus on Saturday night, very nearly produced a mild Super Rugby upset that would have been right up the alley of the group-leading Stormers.
Instead their opponents the Bulls, once again this season guilty of being a “play for one half and go to sleep in the other” team, held out for a 23-18 victory that just about managed to maintain some pressure on the pace-setting Capetonians in Africa Conference 1.
Whatever constructive energy the hosts could muster came almost overwhelmingly in the first half – they held sway 20-10 at the break – as they notched all three of their tries then.
None of the trio of touchdowns possessed any sort of associated subtlety or artistry, in what was generally a frantic but error-prone contest far more blunderbuss than it was boasting any special moments of brilliance.
It will be remembered mostly for the desperation and huffing, puffing industry that characterised the Cheetahs’ second-half clawback, in which they took mounting heart from a scrummaging supremacy that would have had many muscular Bulls pack members of old wincing as they watched the set-piece retreat.
At the end of the day, though, the Cheetahs weren’t capable of finding sufficient game-breaking spark of their own to steal a win and this fixture – just like the Kings v Sunwolves clash immediately preceding it on a notably thin South African-based round six bill – carried an ominous whiff of non-title challenging fare even at this pretty early stage of the 2016 competition.
Still, the Kings at least produced a performance of quite heroic defensive resolve at critical times to repel their Japanese guests 33-28 and thus leave the Sunwolves winless and now the team with the fewest log points (three) of any in the complex 18-team competition.
But this was nevertheless a weekend where you might say “normal service” took increasingly worrying hold if you were South African or Australian, in the sense that teams from the land of the world champion All Blacks largely extended their supremacy.
Given the dubious structure of the tournament again this year – with its guaranteed quarter-finals for four conference-toppers -- an overall table has less value than it probably should, but if you did lump all of the 18 participants together right now, the top two sides for overall log points generated would be the Chiefs (24) and Highlanders (22), with two other New Zealand franchises (Crusaders and Hurricanes) featuring among the top seven teams on that basis competition-wide.
The Stormers (18 points) and Sharks (16), both inactive in the latest round, would be the two South African sides riding in the upper echelons with the Brumbies (whacked at home by the Chiefs on Saturday) the only Australian flag-carriers, although there was a rogue Sunday clash remaining in the present round between the Waratahs and Rebels which could see one of them advance to the “elite” seven.
Robbie Fleck’s charges head almost certainly the weaker on paper of the two SA conferences – the other has both the Sharks and Lions in it -- and remain fairly strong bookies’ and critics’ favourites to still be at the helm of their pool at the knockout end of the competition.
That said, by winkling out their favourable Saturday result, the slowly redeveloping Bulls did scratch back to within four points of their old southern rivals after five games each.
Defeat, something they flirted rather dangerously with against the stubbornly unyielding men from Bloemfontein, would seriously have increased the likelihood of that particular four-team conference becoming a one-horse race as the gap at the top would probably have been seven points instead.
You can virtually eliminate the possibility of either of the Cheetahs or Sunwolves creating a sensation by winning the group, as both already seem too far behind to be able to prove genuinely bothersome further down the line.
The Bulls do have a reasonably attractive fixture next weekend, when they travel down to Port Elizabeth to meet the Kings; they will be widely deemed favourites despite the minnows’ tonic in beating the Sunwolves.
But there is also an even better chance that the Stormers will only have opened up a wider gap the night before, as their next foes are the very Japanese team on Friday evening – that one seems as near as it is possible to get as a banker for Juan de Jongh and company even if they are somehow off their A-game at Newlands.
There can be absolutely no doubting of the SA headline act of round seven: Sharks v Lions in Durban, with only two points dividing them in Africa Conference 2.
All of next weekend’s matches (home teams first, all kick-offs SA time):
Friday: Chiefs v Blues, 09:35; Force v Crusaders, 13:00; Stormers v Sunwolves, 19:00. Saturday: Hurricanes v Jaguares, 09:35; Reds v Highlanders, 11:45; Sharks v Lions, 17:05; Kings v Bulls, 19:15.
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