Well, it certainly did turn out to be a bloody great weekend for Sharks fans, even if every other South African team conspired to lose. The Bulls were outplayed from start to finish in a game they would have been targeting as a must-win on tour (sound familiar?), while both the Lions and the Stormers lost games that were theirs for the taking all the way through.
This season’s race is still wide open as we move past the halfway mark, with only a few log points (8, to be precise separating the Sharks at the top, and the eighth-placed Blues. After a really sluggish start, two strong challengers from New Zealand are emerging in the Hurricanes and the Chiefs, with the latter in particular scoring more tries than I’ve had hot dinners. The Waratahs are pretty much Australia’s lone hope at this stage, with the Brumbies having lost their way badly in South Africa. For the South Africans, a lot will depend on whether the Bulls manage to bounce back after their unfortunate stumble in Palmerston North.
The Crusaders are nowhere near dead and buried yet, of course and are more-or-less even with the other two New Zealand franchises at this stage, the Highlanders and the Blues. The latter just don’t really look like going anywhere under Pat Lam this season but the perennially unlucky Highlanders are starting to build up a decent bit of momentum, having won their last three games. Don’t be terribly surprised to see a late challenge by the men from South Island, particularly given that they have a (relatively) easy tour to South Africa in their future.
Of course, it’s risky to make predictions about where teams will finish without them having toured yet and from that perspective, you’d have to be a fool to bet against the Sharks finishing in at least the top four, but hopefully the top two. The Bulls will still need to find a way to win at least one, but hopefully two more games on tour in order to be up there at the end, particularly given that their remaining away fixture in the republic will be in Durban – the final match of the round. Other early season front-runners, the Chiefs and the Waratahs, also still have to come to South Africa. The former will need to down the Bulls, Stormers and Cheetahs, while the men from Sydney have the Sharks, Lions and Cheetahs to contend with. Given that the Canes have already won one of their games on tour, you’d have to back them to finish higher than their Waikato rivals – their clash in Hamilton in round 13 could prove telling.
As always, so much will depend on the form of the weaker South African teams at home. Given that we probably can’t bank on the Cheetahs to do anything other than concede bonus-point victories to anybody bored enough to visit Bloemfontein, it’s the Lions and Stormers who will need to do the favours as far as the Sharks and Bulls are concerned. The Lions seem determined to play ridiculous rugby this season and, I fear, will return from their tour a broken team. As for the Stormers, well – the only consistent thing about them is that you never know what they’re going to dish up on any given Saturday. Will they record a clean sweep of home wins against the Chiefs and Western Force? Somehow I doubt it, but let’s hope they win the one that counts.
Right now, if I were a betting man, my semi-final predictions would be as follows: