Cape Town – Back in the halcyon days of Super 12, just about every weekend promised potentially enthralling, often tricky-to-predict contests.
They tended overwhelmingly to pit genuine strength against strength, too: some critics reckoned the better fixtures often produced rugby barely short of Test standard.
But a look at the looming, fourth round of matches in Super Rugby 2017, especially as it relates to the South African teams, somehow sums up the current woes and public dissatisfaction prevalent in the competition.
Even the more appealing games are already struggling to draw large crowds this season, and don’t expect the turnstiles to be turning over too consistently this particularly moderate-looking weekend, either.
The four-fixture SA diary shows matches that almost unanimously fail for true “box office appeal”, a situation brought about by the swelling - and consequent dilution - of a competition which has also lost its pleasing simplicity to follow and formerly quite specific, regional identity.
In television terms, you get a powerful sense that a lot of people watch the now relative flood of Super Rugby matches on a Saturday almost incidentally, more than they do avidly.
The swollen 18-team competition – seemingly in the throes of tangible, cull-aimed review, which is no bad thing – contains too many sides with a dangerously severe limit on the number of bums-on-seats individuals within the ranks.
And that is largely why a glance at the round-four roster gives you a decidedly ho-hum feeling.
The SA-relevant matches begin with a Friday-nighter – not always a popular slot for the Pretoria public, at best of times – between the currently winless Bulls (something that hardly helps their allure) and already extremely ailing, nought-from-three Sunwolves.
Deep down, Bulls enthusiasts will know that beating the rather motley-looking Japanese outfit is a relative given; the occasion will, with respect, be far more about how the hosts play than whether they can actually win.
It just seems an all-too-easy way for the three-time past champions to belatedly open their victory account, regardless of the actual score-line after 80 minutes.
Super Rugby never used to have such obvious “gimmes”.
The Sunwolves, to their credit, gave their all in Bloemfontein last weekend against a Cheetahs side who, truth be told, wouldn’t have been deemed of ideal Super 12 quality themselves several years back … yet still went down, even if only by a seven-point margin after leaking so embarrassingly badly in round one against the Hurricanes and then being beaten convincingly at home by the similarly humble Kings.
Will they have enough remaining puff to be remotely competitive in a second successive Highveld game, at Loftus?
The Lions against the Reds, Saturday’s earliest fixture on our soil, is reasonably appealing, but only that.
It is “saved”, perhaps, by both teams being under pressure to prevail after respective losses last time out, although the Lions are not yet looking like the sharp unit they were as runners-up in 2016 and came a cropper for a second year in a row, with another weakened outfit, in Buenos Aires.
On that note, fielding of under-strength teams has become a more regular feature of Super Rugby – something that virtually never happened in seasons past – as franchises either make allowances for the new marathon-length of the ordinary season or stronger teams simply know they can beat certain comers comfortably enough with noticeably watered-down XVs.
Remember that the Reds, for all the heartbreak of their late, late home sickener against the Crusaders (who beat them with a penalty after the siren) have already played second fiddle to the cash-strapped, superstar-short Force in Perth.
The only SA derby of the day pops up at 19:30 … but it’s not exactly a sizzler, featuring the now promising-looking Sharks against the freshly status-endangered Kings.
Again, you suspect the heavily-tipped Sharks will have to be absolutely abject to lose this one, bearing in mind that after fair competitiveness early on, the PE-based crew still succumbed by 31 points at home to the Stormers on Saturday.
Admittedly not having the unbeaten, bye-enjoying Stormers on this weekend’s agenda quite obviously doesn’t help its collective “sexiness”, and for those with some semblance of rugby-watching durability, the night ends with the turn of the Cheetahs to try – it may not be much more than that, especially with their mounting injury crisis and thin depth – to get one over the feisty Jaguares across the Atlantic Ocean.
A saving grace on the immediate horizon, even if some South Africans will view it with trepidation, is that round five will finally see the first appearance of a 2017 SA fixture against one of the collectively formidable New Zealand teams (Blues v Bulls, Albany) – a chance to begin properly assessing whether our franchises really are progressing at all.
But a promoter’s dream, this particular weekend’s SA fare?
This weekend’s fixtures (home teams first, all kick-offs SA time):
Friday: Crusaders v Blues, 08:35; Rebels v Chiefs, 10:45; Bulls v Sunwolves. Saturday: Hurricanes v Highlanders, 08:35; Waratahs v Brumbies, 10:45; Lions v Reds, 17:15; Sharks v Kings, 19:30; Jaguares v Cheetahs, 21:40. Byes: Stormers, Force.
*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing