Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town – The SA conference in Super Rugby is increasingly heading toward an historic Jaguares triumph.
Yes, the only non-South African side in the five-team group have become reasonably clear favourites now to earn best seeding of the lot for the knockout phase in 2019.
Their 23-15 victory over the Waratahs in Sydney on Saturday was the key feature of the latest round from a conference perspective: it took them to a precious second win on the trot from three Australasian tour fixtures so far, considering last week’s commendable toppling of the Hurricanes in Wellington.
The Argentineans (eight wins from 13 games, 36 points) now also lie second on the overall table to the runaway Crusaders and, as former Springbok coach Nick Mallett opined in the SuperSport studio after the Sharks v Lions derby, “it will take a lot not to have a Crusaders-Jaguares final”.
For the conference is really the Jaguares’ to lose from here, and the South African teams must hope (against hope?) that the low-lying Reds can somehow knock them over in Brisbane next weekend in their closing tour fixture, which might have the effect of returning the cat to the pigeons in the group.
From there, it looks quite pleasant sailing – on paper, anyway — for the Pumas national side in disguise, as they round off with successive Buenos Aires dates against the Sharks and Sunwolves.
Only adding to the likelihood that the Jaguares will clinch the conference – with the good chance it brings of teeing up vital home semi-final rights — is that most of their SA-based rivals sport trickier run-ins in terms of calibre of opponents.
The Sharks, for example, who saw off a tenacious Lions crew 27-17 at Kings Park on Saturday evening, are three points shy of the Jaguares and can’t afford to step off the pedal for a minute: they must play the Hurricanes (who really lie second overall, robbed of that slot only by the debatable tournament format) in Durban next weekend, then go to Buenos Aires, and travel back wearily across the Atlantic Ocean to round off at Newlands against arch-rivals the Stormers.
Third-placed and one point behind the Sharks, the Bulls have two difficult remaining games abroad to tackle … and both in New Zealand (Blues and Highlanders), where they hardly boast a sparkling record, so their finals series candle may well burn out over the next fortnight.
Although they are unlikely to haul in the Jaguares from here considering their six-point current shortfall on them, the Stormers – deserved 34-22 victors over the Highlanders at Newlands – arguably represent the best chance of another SA conference team (though there may yet be more, with luck) booking a quarter-final berth, though possibly with a difficult seeding.
After one further away match, against the Lions in Johannesburg on Saturday, Robbie Fleck’s gradually more vibrant charges end their ordinary-season campaign with two games conveniently in the shadow of Table Mountain (Sunwolves, Sharks).
Their big plus, in dotting a rare four tries in their latest outing, was that their backline burst into welcome life, with stellar showings from all of scrumhalf Herschel Jantjies, inside centre Damian de Allende and the buzzing back three of Dillyn Leyds, Seabelo Senatla and Damian Willemse.
Having entered the clash with the worst “tries for” record in the competition (23), their notable shift upward to 27 meant that they at least drew level with the ailing Sunwolves in that respect – and of course their try-concession record is hugely better.
If the continued efficiency of the Stormers pack is matched by the renewed enterprise of the back division, their last few weeks have the potential to be pretty productive.
Nevertheless, injuries picked up against the NZ foes to staple Bok loose forwards Siya Kolisi and Pieter-Steph du Toit – both playing stirring rugby, too — will be a concern to national coach Rassie Erasmus.
Late in the game, Bok lock legend Bakkies Botha said on Twitter that Du Toit, the SA Rugby Player of the Year from last season, seemed to be “playing every minute, every weekend” and that Erasmus might need to “put his foot down” to ensure more rest for him.
“We need him (as much as) any other player for the World Cup … he is an iron man,” Botha said.
Next weekend’s fixtures (home teams first, all kick-offs SA time):
Friday: Blues v Bulls, 09:35; Rebels v Waratahs, 11:45. Saturday: Sunwolves v Brumbies, 07:15; Chiefs v Crusaders, 09:35; Reds v Jaguares, 11:45; Sharks v Hurricanes, 15:05; Lions v Stormers, 17:15. Bye: Highlanders.
*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing