With the business end of the Super 14 looming large, the pre-tournament prophecy of Springbok coach Peter de Villiers does not seem as fanciful as it did a couple of weeks ago.
Gavin Rich writes for Superrugby that back in February, before the 2008 edition of the southern hemisphere regional competition kicked off, De Villiers raised eyebrows by suggesting that there would be three South African teams in the semi-finals.
There definitely won’t be that many, and it should be of some concern to South African rugby bosses that three local teams currently occupy the last three positions on the log.
But with the Stormers suddenly so strongly in the frame for a semi-final, and the Sharks continuing on the winning vein that they have been on all season, there could well be two teams in the playoffs – and could have been three had the champion Bulls not exploded as spectacularly as they have.
The Bulls did not do any of the other South African teams any favours with their inept display against the Hurricanes. It was assumed by most critics that now that the Bulls had arrived back at Loftus, they would pick up their old momentum.
It seemed a reasonable assumption based on the way the Bulls had played in two unlucky losing efforts against the Blues and the Force in their last overseas matches.
They were never in the game against the Hurricanes, conceding an early converted try and then just falling apart later on as the Hurricanes became the second New Zealand team this season to put 50 points past the Bulls at Loftus.
That was not something you could have imagined when the Bulls finished 2007 with such a flourish, smashing the Reds with a 90 pointer in their last league match.
There again, it has been a bizarre season for the Bulls, for they lost to that same Reds team 40-8 a couple of weeks ago in Brisbane.
By the time the competition has run its course, it may well be that the only notable achievement of the Bulls would have been the blow they landed on the Stormers challenge in the opening week – still only one of two Bulls wins this season, the other being against the equally impotent Lions.
How the Stormers must wish they had taken their chances against the Bulls and won that opening match. Had they done so, they would have 27 or 28 log points now, and would be comfortably ensconced in the top three.
As it is though they do have a great chance of reaching the top four, with this week’s hugely important clash with the Hurricanes at Newlands representing a chance for them to move into the frame. They are currently seventh, but several teams are log-jammed on almost the same number of points.
Banking on that now
Two of those teams have also played more games than the Stormers, while others are set to cancel each other out in the coming weeks.
The next fortnight will be critical for Jean de Villiers’ men, as after the Hurricanes they face the Waratahs, currently fourth. Of course, the Bulls could also do the Stormers a favour by knocking over the Waratahs, but no-one will be banking on that now.
The Stormers showed against the Cheetahs that they do have the class to go all the way.
Although there were only 12 points in it at the end and the Cheetahs outscored the hosts 19-10 in the second half, the match was effectively over as a contest by half time, when the Stormers led 24-3 and had already scored four tries to clinch a bonus point.
As that would suggest, the Stormers played confident rugby, with backs and forwards both excelling on a day which many in the crowd considered the best they had experienced at Newlands during a Super rugby season for quite some time.
The Cape side could be the form SA team at the moment, as the Sharks continued to fall some way short of their best effort against the Highlanders.
It will be pointed out by Durbanites that the Sharks did win, that they are second on the log, but that old argument that “they have to hit the straps sometime, it is just around the corner”, is starting to get a little tired.
At the same time, it does need to be noted that the Highlanders raised their game in Dunedin, and the young players in that team have grown immeasurably in confidence in the past few weeks. They could yet cause a surprise or two when they come to South Africa.
The Sharks now go into a critical few weeks in which they play the Waratahs, Brumbies and Crusaders, all teams who are challenging at present. If they win the next two, they should be able to go into the Crusaders game, the last of their tour, knowing that they have secured a semi-final place.
It was a weekend for away victories, with just the Stormers and Crusaders winning at home.
The Blues go into their bye fortnight in danger of falling out of the list of teams challenging after a second successive defeat, this time to the Brumbies, while the Waratahs are up and running after a good result against the Western Force.
Highlanders 17 Sharks 19
Blues 11 Brumbies 16
Force 12 Waratahs 17
Stormers 34 Cheetahs 22
Bulls 22 Hurricanes 50