Such are the days that give a coach grey hair. Two rounds of Super Rugby to go to the playoffs and no one is safe. The table topping Reds cannot be ejected from the top six that will contest the playoffs, but they might easily surrender the home advantage for a semifinal that looked theirs by right for so long. Everyone else is vulnerable, even the second-placed Stormers, who have just concluded a foreign assignment featuring three wins out of four.
Two case studies reveal the side effects of an expanded tournament. First, the Bulls, defending champions and pre-tournament favourites, have had time to start slowly, play badly, improve, decline and then, with a loaded gun against the team’s head, show their true quality when one more defeat would have been fatal.
Case study number two features the Blues, pace setters for much of the season, who were within minutes of beating the Stormers at Eden Park three weeks ago. Then the great Schalk Burger got across the line to tie the scores and Dewald Duvenage’s conversion clinched the game for the visitors, 28-26. The Blues earned four points for a bye the following week, but then lost to the Chiefs in last weekend’s round of upsets.
That meant that they had lost three in a row, split by the bye weekend, the sequence beginning against the Reds in Brisbane. This week, the Blues play the Crusaders in Nelson. Next week it’s the Highlanders in Auckland. If they were to lose both those games, which might easily happen, it would be five in a row and would mean, potentially, ejection from the playoffs.
That’s unlikely, but the remaining fixtures contain enough banana skins for a clown’s convention. The Stormers, for instance, have to play the Bulls at Newlands and the Cheetahs in Bloemfontein. They have been consistently the best South African side all year, but lose those two games and they’ll miss out on the home-fixture guaranteed for a place in the top three.
This week’s game against the Bulls is the big one. A home win could simultaneously sink the Bulls and install the Stormers as tournament favourites. An away win would keep the blue machine in the mix and put the fear of God into the unfortunate teams that have to play them in the next month. That includes the Sharks, who travel to Loftus for the final round of log fixtures.
This week, the Sharks play the Lions in Johannesburg. All three of the Lions’ wins this year have been away from home and they finish with a bye. They have not won a Super Rugby match at home for two years. Is it any wonder that the deal is close to fruition to move the Lions to Soweto permanently?
How much fuel is left in the tank? Will the Lions want to mark their passing from a grand old stadium with a final flourish, or will they, like the Cheetahs in Bloemfontein last week, gracefully allow the Sharks the points they so desperately need?
There have been times this year when the Sharks looked like world beaters. There have been rather more times, particularly against the Stormers and Bulls, when they have been bereft of ideas and belief. On several occasions, coach John Plumtree has pleaded with his star players to come to the party.
Flyhalf Pat Lambie seized the day against the Waratahs two weeks ago, playing his best game of rugby since the Currie Cup final in October last year. Winger JP Pietersen rediscovered his lost mojo a month ago and has produced a series of international-class displays since then.
Simultaneously, however, back-row enforcer Willem Alberts, the best South African player on display in the first six weeks of the tournament, has hit the wall. A damaged shoulder may keep him out of this week’s game, but in truth it is his style of play that ensures a finite shelf life.
When all of this is over one month from now, it will be the job of national coach Peter de Villiers to pick up the pieces and mould a team capable of retaining the World Cup. Again, the increased length of the competition is a double-edged sword. It puts immense strain on star players, but it also allows time for the great ones to find their form.
Into that category fall Jean de Villiers, Fourie du Preez and, to a lesser extent, Bakkies Botha. De Villiers is now playing the rugby that made him the best centre in the world prior to his ill-fated trip to Ireland. Du Preez was on the verge of regaining his matchless zip when injury struck him down, but there is still time for him to come back.
As for Botha, it seems likely that he will not command a starting place at the World Cup, such has been the form of Andries Bekker. But imagine a scenario where, in a tight game against, say, Ireland, the Stormers man was to leave the field on the 50-minute mark to be replaced by a Bull with something to prove in the last half hour.