There will still be three weeks of Vodacom Super Rugby remaining after the break for the international window, which sets in after this coming weekend’s round, but the chances are good that the competition could go into that phase with the respective conference races pretty much done and dusted.
The only conference where a significant step forward wasn’t taken by one of the teams during this latest round was the South African one.
Indeed, the Toyota Cheetahs effectively closed the gap enjoyed by the Bulls by one long point as they managed a four-try bonus point against the Southern Kings in Port Elizabeth, while the Bulls were well short of matching that in Durban.
What the Bulls did do though by winning their tight derby against the Sharks at Kings Park, was keep the pressure on the Cheetahs, who have a bye still to come.
That effectively means the teams are only really separated by one solitary log point, with the Bulls having four matches remaining and the Cheetahs three.
However, a Bulls win in what now shapes up as a massive derby match in Bloemfontein this coming Saturday, will effectively kill off the Cheetahs’ chances of topping the conference as it will leave the Cheetahs with too much to do in the sense that the Bulls will have to lose two of the three matches that remain after that, while the Cheetahs will have to win both of theirs.
That’s not completely beyond the realms of comprehension if you consider that the Bulls have to still travel to Cape Town and also host the Sharks, but the Cheetahs have to go to Newlands too.
And the Bulls should rate their chances of picking up four tries and winning against the Kings when they host the tournament newcomers at Loftus after the international window.
So the task for the Cheetahs is a clear one: they have to win at all costs in Bloemfontein or their interest in the remainder of the season will be limited to the race for a wild-card position in the play-offs.
That still wouldn’t be something to scoff at for a franchise that hasn’t been involved in Super Rugby play-offs before, but a conference win, and an easier passage through the play-offs, must be first prize.
A Cheetahs win on Saturday is certainly within their grasp on the evidence of this past weekend’s round of matches.
FULL OF CONFIDENCE
The Bulls struggled at times before eventually overcoming the depleted Sharks with a late penalty, while the Cheetahs looked full of confidence and poise as they wore down the initial resilience of the gutsy Kings before eventually running riot in the second half.
And they have the carrot of knowing that a win over the Bulls effectively puts them ahead in the conference race as their four bye points are guaranteed. So it’s all to play for in the South African conference – at least for this week.
That’s not really the case in New Zealand, where the Chiefs, thanks to their brave win over the Crusaders in Hamilton this past weekend, will retain a healthy buffer after this next round regardless of what happens elsewhere.
That’s because they enjoy a bye and pick up four points, so even if the Crusaders beat the Waratahs and the Blues the Highlanders, the champions will still enjoy at least a nine-point buffer after this weekend.
That may leave the other teams with too much to do, and you get the sense that for both the Blues and Crusaders it’s now a case of chasing a wild-card entry to the play-offs.
The Australian conference looks exactly like the South African one, with exactly the same points difference between the log-leading Brumbies and the Reds as there is in South Africa between the Bulls and the Cheetahs.
Even the match situation is the same in the sense that the Brumbies have had both their byes while the Reds still have an automatic four-pointer to look forward to.
But the Brumbies, with three matches to go against the Reds’ two, did make a significant step in the right direction by winning a wet-weather game against the Blues on the same weekend that the Reds suffered their second defeat in South Africa.
The Stormers turned out to be the coastal spoilers this weekend, although it wasn’t a South African side that suffered.
If they can play with the same spirit in future matches, the Stormers could still dent a few other sides, as even when depleted they remain difficult to beat at Newlands.
And in keeping the Reds halfbacks Will Genia and Quade Cooper so bottled up, they showed that their coaches are also no slouches when it comes to planning and plotting.
Because the Kings had already picked up five log points at the Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium, the Bulls had a lot to play for at Kings Park – and it showed, with both teams looking nervous and tense in a game that can be added to a list of forgettable occasions at that venue so far this season.
Upcoming fixtures – all times CAT(SA, GMT+2)
Friday: Crusaders v Waratahs 9.35am; Brumbies v Hurricanes 11.40am.
Saturday: Highlanders v Blues 9.30am; Reds v Rebels 11. 40am; Stormers v Kings 5.05pm; Cheetahs v Bulls 7.05pm