In a normal season, it would be possible to make some predictions as Super Rugby enters round five. But this is not a normal season. Such have been the peregrinations of the 18 competing teams that no one really knows who is Arthur, who is Martha, who are the sheep and who the goats.
It is safe to say that three teams – the Kings, the Sunwolves and the Reds – can be discounted. The Cheetahs and the Force also look some way short of play-off material, but it is possible to see each affecting their respective conferences with a win or two against the odds. Anyone wanting to predict further hasn’t been watching.
The Sharks deserve their moment in the sun – top of the combined log after four rounds. But let’s remember that, in reality, there is no longer any such thing as a combined log. It has been kept on life support by media houses desperate for some context, but the fact of the matter is that play-off places are determined by conference positions, not log positions.
The Sharks have defended their way to the top of the imaginatively titled Africa Conference 2, but they will need to do something more to maintain that position. In fact, with the Kings clearly irrelevant to the overall picture, the Sharks have a clear aim – they have to do better than the Lions and the Jaguares. Obviously that entails winning games against other sides, but the parochial nature of the new system will quickly become apparent.
Remember that the prize for winning the two African conferences is a home quarterfinal. The third qualifier is the best placed of the two sides that finish second. If the cut was made now, the Sharks and Stormers would have a home quarter and the Lions would have to travel. It is sadly irrelevant to any of those three sides who is doing what in New Zealand and Australia, and it’s hard to believe that Sanzaar (South Africa, New Zealand, Australia, Argentina Rugby) had that in mind when it released its model.
The Lions have a bye this week, so cannot improve their position. The good news, however, is that they cannot be overtaken by the teams below them in either of the African conferences. Johan Ackermann’s men will simply be hoping that the Sharks lose to the Crusaders in Durban and that the Jaguares succumb to the Stormers in Buenos Aires.
Both scenarios are more than possible. The Crusaders arrived in Durban on Monday with a squad bolstered by the return of the newly appointed All Black captain, Kieran Read. They had the luxury of being able to field a second-string side against the Kings in Christchurch last week, and still score a half-century of points that included eight tries.
The Crusaders will surely ask more pertinent questions of the Sharks than the Bulls managed at Loftus last week. This will be the first time Gary Gold’s men have faced New Zealand opponents this year and it is likely that we will know a lot more about their true capabilities by the end of the contest.
Much the same can be said of the Stormers ahead of their first overseas trip. Their supporters will point to a convincing win against the Brumbies in Cape Town last week. Their detractors will point out the yellow card against Josh Mann-Rea in the final quarter and yet another dubious television match official (TMO) decision as significant factors in the win.
Something is wrong when the abiding memories of two successive games at Newlands are of decisions made by TMO Marius Jonker. Two weeks ago, the Sharks beat the Stormers because Jonker advised a yellow card and penalty try for what was clearly not a deliberate foul by Siya Kolisi. On Saturday, he gave a try to Dillyn Leyds, which brought a bemused smile to the Stormers’ wing.
In both instances, the experts in law application have closed ranks and backed Jonker. In the first instance, we were reminded that the law book does not deal with intent. In the second, that there was no clear separation between ball and hand as Leyds flew into the corner. Clearly then, in both instances the law is an ass and needs to be rewritten. Again.
The atmosphere will be a good deal less convivial when the Stormers take on the Jaguares on Saturday night. The Argentine newcomers have been suggested as play-off material, but they have lost twice in three starts and have to regroup.
Some time last year, there was a sea change in attitude for the national side, the Pumas, and they went from being dour grinders with a good kicker to a perpetual motion machine. The Jaguares are merely the Pumas in different jerseys and clearly believe that Super Rugby rewards attacking play. Thus in their three games so far they have played as though the ball was a hot potato.
The Stormers’ coaching team, noting this, should be looking to slow the game down and reacquaint the Jaguares with the merits of a solid scrum and a reliable line-out. Tempo is everything and, if the Stormers get drawn into the frenetic methods of the Argentinians, they will lose.