Cape Town – Anyone expecting the Sunwolves to knock over the Sharks in their Kings Park stronghold on Friday night?
A glance at the fledgling Japanese franchise’s Vodacom Super Rugby record on South African soil this season hardly suggests it will happen: they are nought from four with defeats against the Bulls (50-3 last weekend), Cheetahs (92-17), Stormers (46-19) and Kings (33-28).
So it would be near-scandalous, frankly, if the Sharks were to crash in Durban, a result that would suddenly, seriously imperil their qualification for the quarter-finals.
If we assume instead that Gary Gold’s charges will duly get the job done, however, it will also signal an unusually lame-duck last pair of SA derbies on a Saturday presumably intended upfront in 2016 to be excitingly decisive.
Should the Sharks have won, the Bulls – two points shy of their compatriots as things stand – will be out of the running for the “extra” (third) South African playoffs slot and the Sharks gleefully clutching their ticket instead before the Pretoria-based team’s Bloemfontein kick-off (19:15) against the Cheetahs.
The Bulls also cannot improve, regardless of their result, on their second-placed status in Africa Conference 1 where the Stormers are confirmed winners, whilst the Cheetahs will also remain third, ahead of only the very distant Sunwolves, whether they win or lose.
That is hardly the recipe for attracting a much-needed decent gate at the Free State Stadium, and much the same scenario will be prevalent at Newlands where the Stormers (17:05) host the ailing Kings.
There is nothing at stake in that fixture, with the Stormers already guaranteed third place overall in the competition – albeit helped by the dubious “forced” structure -- and a banked home quarter-final.
They would be foolish not to rest certain overplayed individuals like Pieter-Steph du Toit, and the only minor incentive for the visitors from the Eastern Cape might be to try, against probably under-strength opponents, to end on more competition points than the Sunwolves: both currently sport a flimsy nine after 14 games each.
So the Saturday prime-time fare in South Africa looks like being embarrassingly mundane, with television viewers who care about the high-riding Lions instead gearing up for a red-eye late night (23:40 kick-off, our time) when Johan Ackermann’s outfit try to secure premier overall finish against the Jaguares in Buenos Aires.
The unsatisfactory situation in Bloemfontein (in all likelihood) and Cape Town on Saturday only underlines the weaknesses increasingly coming to the fore in the complicated, now 18-team competition – both of the four-team Africa conferences clearly show two pretty credible challengers, and two quite glaring also-rans.
Across the Indian Ocean the New Zealand conference, in stark contrast, is set for a grandstand finish with four of the five representatives still vying desperately for top spot and two Saturday derby crackers in the offing: Crusaders v Hurricanes and Highlanders v Chiefs. They are all separated by a mere three points.
In a demonstration of just how enviably “strength versus strength” the NZ group is, the five sides boast an average this season of 46.4 points per team, whereas in Africa 1 the average dwindles to 28.25 and in Africa 2 it is 29.50.
The Australian conference? Things are even more painful, with an average points haul between the five franchises of 26.80.
There are rumbling in the New Zealand media already, unsurprisingly, and it is hard to imagine that these won’t intensify if, going forward in the revamped competition, teams from those shores continue to dominate outrageously in the wins column yet in several instances be impeded in possible advancement through the knockouts by the dubious nature of the format.
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