The bookies have a Super-size problem this rugby season
The most open Super Rugby season for many years continues to defy those who would make a living from predicting results. Few would dispute that the Sharks and the Chiefs, currently first and third on the log, have lived up to their pre-season hype, but what are we to make of the rest?
There are, for instance, three Australian teams in the play-off zone at the moment. The Brumbies are second, the Force fourth and the Waratahs fifth.
The last two have supplanted the Lions and the Bulls in the top six, leaving the Sharks as the only South African side in the mix. New Zealand has two; the Highlanders lying sixth, at the time of writing.
There are just four log points dividing fifth place and 12th, however, so it is almost impossible to make a call on what the top six will look like come mid-July. It is probably safe to say that the Stormers and the Cheetahs won't be there, as they occupy the bottom two spots and have accumulated just one win apiece.
But the 13th-placed Rebels are not out of the running and it is not stretching the boundaries of belief to imagine the three teams above them – the Reds, Blues and Hurricanes – resurrecting their campaigns in the months to come. All three are sitting on 16 log points, the same number as the ninth-placed Lions.
Almost a month has gone by since the Lions last won. That controversial 23-20 victory over the Reds was owed to a stirring second-half comeback, although it was helped in no small measure by some convenient refereeing decisions. Since then Johan Ackermann's men have had a bye followed by back-to-back defeats against the Crusaders and the Sharks.
The consequence of that winless period is that the Lions have dropped five places on the log. More importantly, the self-confidence that propelled them in the early season has been shredded. After this week's trip to Newlands, they face a tour to the antipodes with fixtures against four of the sides currently in the top six.
That means that this week's clash with the Stormers could have a vital bearing on where they finish at the end of the season. The Stormers won't make the play-offs, so their focus now, along with the Cheetahs, must be on avoiding the promotion/relegation fixture with the Kings. The Lions have four wins and 16 points, but the Stormers have a game in hand and the knowledge that their tour down under has been concluded.
It is possible, in fact, that the final three weeks of the domestic log season could prove thrilling for all the wrong reasons. That's because the Bulls have also dropped out of the running, thanks to two defeats and a draw in the past three weeks.
They currently lie eighth, with the two points dividing them from the Lions, courtesy of the last 11 minutes meltdown against the Chiefs at Loftus.
That astonishing turnaround may in the long run signal the end of the Bulls' challenge. The past two weeks have seen them lose games they should have won, against the Hurricanes and the Highlanders. They earned a bonus point from both fixtures but should have had so much more. Handré Pollard's brilliant try against the Canes showed what they are capable of but a lack of ambition stymied their efforts in Dunedin last week.
The Bulls play the Waratahs in Sydney this week, before taking on the Force in Perth on their way home. If both those games are lost, they will definitely join the final-month local dogfight, with games against the Stormers, Cheetahs and Lions at Loftus.
Jake White's men
At the other end of the scale lie the Sharks, sitting happily atop the log with six wins and a somewhat surprising defeat to the Bulls in Pretoria.
The early season suggested that Jake White's men were going to run all over the opposition but injuries have put a bit of a dampener on their methods. The loss of Pat Lambie for the rest of the campaign has been countered by the spectacular return to form of Frans Steyn, but the hamstring injury to Fred Zeilinga last week put a spanner in the works.
Going forward, the Sharks will have to rely on two callow youngsters as backup. Tim Swiel is the flyhalf cover for Zeilinga, the Bishop's boy having been signed from Western Province under-21s at the end of last year.
A long-term injury to Cobus Reinach means that Stefan Ungerer is the scrumhalf alternative to Charl McLeod. Ungerer looks like the real thing but he is only six months out of his teens. Swiel comes with a glowing reputation but may need longer than Ungerer to adapt to the level of Super Rugby.
Clearly the Sharks will start as favourites against the Cheetahs in Durban this week. They will have to guard against complacency, for the Willie le Roux-inspired visitors have scored plenty of tries this season. Sadly, they have conceded even more, thanks to a defence with more resemblance to a sieve than a brick wall. They will have to fix it if they are to avoid the Kings in August.