Cape Town - The Super Rugby 2019 halfway-mark predictive exercise by Sport24 on Monday seemed to indicate just how nerve-jangling the SA conference should remain until completion of ordinary season on June 15.
By our calculation (or to be more honest, this writer’s) the Jaguares may well now command slightly unexpected inside lane for winning the group and getting a prime knockout seeding … although the Stormers and current leaders Bulls, especially, doubtless have different aspirations on that subject and all sorts of different scenarios remain possible.
Here is a selection of remaining matches that could prove pivotal in the eventual conference pecking order:
Chiefs v Lions, this Friday, Hamilton
Just based on their last two results (5-42 at home against the Sharks and 20-31 away to the Brumbies), the Lions’ star may well be waning after three relative glory years of being losing finalists each time.
That belief will only strengthen, frankly, if they crash in both of their two, highly taxing remaining Australasian tour matches against the Chiefs and Crusaders; they might simply have too much to do from there to have any further sniff at conference mastery.
Which is why the first of those two (shh, shall we write off already any chance of a Christchurch upset against the defending champions and 2019 near-runaway overall leaders?) is so important for the wobbling Highvelders this Friday.
They’ll be underdogs at FMG Stadium Waikato, but remember that some of their players will still carry memories of the stirring 36-32 triumph at the same venue early in 2016, so it is not quite Mission Impossible for the Lions.
Waratahs v Sharks, April 27, Sydney
They’re the great enigmas of the season: are the Sharks - with apologies to that tourism punt for our country - still alive with possibility, or are they teetering on the brink of implosion?
There’s a strongly redemption-themed home game to come first (Reds on Friday), but then this tour opener against the Waratahs will be important anyway in determining whether the Sharks are going to keep firm stomachs on the road and sufficient bite for a playoffs charge.
Should they be pummelled by the ‘Tahs, what price any onward success against the Crusaders and Chiefs respectively?
These foes drew 24-24 in a Kings Park nail-biter last season, which adds to the allure of the 2019 clash Down Under.
Stormers v Bulls, April 27, Cape Town
A major theme, inevitably, for the south-north derby will be the opportunity for Stormers revenge: that opening-weekend 40-3 hiding at Loftus remains clear in the minds of both sets of fans.
But it goes beyond that, particularly if my belief that these two will be the best-finishing SA-specific teams in the conference comes to fruition in mid-June … so this is a biggie.
The Bulls will enter the Newlands humdinger off a bye, which seems helpful in some ways but often enough can also rob sides of sharpness.
That said, the Stormers will be in danger of some fatigue as they’ll enter it off a long run of successive games, including their trek of several weeks across the Indian Ocean.
But they did win last season’s equivalent game 29-17.
Jaguares v Stormers, May 4, Buenos Aires
This is, potentially, a truly enormous game … at least if based around my theory earlier this week that the Jaguares might eventually sneak the conference by a single point from the very Stormers!
My long-range expectation for the game, in that gaze into the crystal ball, was that the South American outfit will prove just too tough a nut to crack for Robbie Fleck’s charges (it was 25-14 to the hosts last season) in the Argentinean capital.
Although the Lions commendably caught them cold there in round one this year, Buenos Aires seems increasingly too tall an order for travelling SA teams in win terms.
Mind you, if the Stormers could prevail, or even bank a precious losing bonus point from a particularly tight, perhaps low-on-tries clash, it might have gigantic ramifications for the closing conference placings …
Bulls v Crusaders, May 10, Pretoria
A huge Friday floodlit clash at Loftus, this: it comes just before the Bulls depart on their inconveniently late, four-leg Australasian tour.
The last thing Pote Human’s charges need is to get on the flight straight off a home reverse, considering that they need as much “buffering” as possible in log terms before the perilous trek begins.
Let’s face it, their travel record is poor - they were 0/3 in those climes last season, 0/2 in 2017, and their last win was against the now-disinvited Force in Perth in 2016.
While the imperious ‘Saders are often more than happy these days to strut their stuff on hard, fast Highveld pitches, you get the sense that this will be a proper test of where the rebuilding Bulls are in their development … and conquering the champions is certainly not out of the question.
The Stormers will also be hoping the Bulls do as much as possible to soften up the Cantabrians, as they tackle them a week later in the always emotion-charged fixture that will bring out some “Cape Crusaders” in force.
Stormers v Sharks, June 15, Cape Town
This is the second-last game of the entire 2019 ordinary season roster … preceding only another appetising derby by a couple of hours (the Bulls entertain the Lions in the early evening slot).
So there is every chance several of the contestants in these all-SA humdingers will know exactly what they have to do if knockout-phase possibilities still exist for them.
No special favours are handed out in such encounters, of course, even if there is the odd “dead rubber” participant: remember that Bok coach Rassie Erasmus will be focussing his binoculars ever more by then on the form of various borderline contenders for national squad duty.
I have a gut feel that the Newlands game will have more at stake than the Loftus one when June 15 comes around, though offer no guarantees …
*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing ...