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12 Jul 2013 00:00
The mandarins of Sanzar, who like to believe that Super Rugby is a level playing field. (Gallo)
The mandarins of Sanzar, who like to believe that Super Rugby is a level playing field, will be delighted that there are two sides from each country in the Super 15 playoffs.
The final round of log fixtures is relevant only to those top six, with final positions determining who plays who and where in the knockout stages. It means that for the other nine teams this week is an irrelevance, and don't let anybody tell you that the fight for conference positions is still important.
It is not.
The realignment of Super Rugby that happened three seasons ago was allegedly based on marketing surveys concluding that the fans wanted more local derbies.
Nevertheless, it is only the ceaseless quest for bragging rights that will enliven the final weekend of log play. The key local derbies are the Blues versus the Chiefs in Auckland, the Waratahs versus the Reds in Sydney and the Bulls versus the Stormers in Cape Town.
It might be argued that there is a fourth, but it's hard to believe the Brumbies will be extended by the Force in Perth. That's despite the fact that several Brumbies players were involved in the Wallabies' series against the Lions.
They will also be breathing a sigh of relief in Canberra that the Australian Rugby Union preferred Ewen McKenzie over Jake White as the coaching replacement for Robbie Deans at the Wallabies.
McKenzie has the unenviable task of rebuilding Australian rugby from the ground up. Under Deans's tenure almost everyone has been given a go and, as a result, no one knows who can play and who can't. That's as opposed to who can play and who shouldn't, for it beggars belief that Kurtley Beale was allowed to be an integral part of the series.
Beale assaulted his own captain on tour in South Africa while "in his cups" following a heavy defeat by the Sharks in Durban. He was sent away to rehab and, as soon as he was available again, in he came.
By contrast, the rather more talented Quade Cooper, no angel himself, was forced to watch the Tests on television and he and Deans do not see eye to eye. Cooper is the most likely addition to the Wallaby squad now that his old coach is in charge.
It is fortunate that McKenzie is a former prop forward, and it is there and not in the back line that Australia imploded against the Lions. He will not be helped by news that the new scrum engagement laws, currently on trial in the Currie Cup, will be applied in the Rugby Championship, starting in August.
The new system removes "the hit" from the equation and requires teams to bind and be still as the scrumhalf delivers the ball into the tunnel. Then it's every man for himself, a pushing frenzy that seeks to reintroduce the art of hooking to the game. Successive Australian teams that have blamed a misplaced "hit" on the scrum collapse will now have to find new ways to avoid the contest.
In theory it should help South African teams, particularly the Sharks, Cheetahs and Bulls, who base much of their play on solid set-piece ball. The Cheetahs have had such an inspired year in broken play that few have noted the power and depth of their front-row resources.
Coenie Oosthuizen, Adriaan Strauss, Trevor Nyakane and Lourens Adriaanse have been the bulldozers moving the rubble that has allowed the high steppers in the back row and three-quarter line to play their game.
The Sharks have had so many injuries that it is hard to say what might have been, but it was their scrum that laid the foundation for what should have been victory against the Bulls at Loftus on Saturday. Rarely in recent times have the Bulls been so dominated in the set pieces (their line-outs were also a shambles), although when they have, it has tended to be by the Sharks.
But it is impossible to be critical of the Bulls, for they are within a win, or even a draw, of topping the log for the third time in their history. You have to go back to March 30 for the last time the Bulls lost, and that was by dint of a controversial post-hooter penalty from the Brumbies.
A side that lost a handful of legendary Springboks to retirement and overseas pensions two years ago, and then had to deal with a slew of mid-season injuries, has rebuilt in astonishing fashion.
Victor Matfield's teams went forward through the educated boot of Fourie du Preez, but the current team has more strings to its bow, not to mention a rejuvenated Morné Steyn at flyhalf.
Given the way the play-offs benefit the side that tops the log, it's doubtful the Stormers will bring enough to deny the Bulls on Saturday.
That's despite the fact that in Super Rugby only the Crusaders have won at Newlands in the past two years. Riaan Viljoen's missed kick at the death at Loftus, which gifted the Bulls their 20-19 win, may turn out to be the moment that clinched the trophy for the blue machine.
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