Pretoria – Barring a miracle now, the Absa Stadium and Newlands will stage semi-finals in the 2009 Currie Cup.
That was the key development after the 12th round of matches this weekend, in which the Cheetahs earned a precious losing bonus point at Loftus to keep their own last-four aspirations alive: Griquas are not nearly as secure in third place on the table as their points tally thus far suggests.
The Sharks and Western Province will have to collapse like a pack of cards beneath a sledgehammer in the next fortnight to be pushed out of either of the top two spots – and it is even less likely to happen given their respective run-ins.
A home match against the Lions and trip to Griquas is the remaining requirement for the log-leading Sharks (45 points), while Province (44) play the gormless Cavaliers at home and finish at Coca-Cola Park against the Lions.
Both the Sharks and WP will be smart-money bets to win both fixtures on present form, leaving only to be decided the high-stakes matter of which of them ends first.
A little further down the ladder, though, the Bulls moved closer to ensuring a semis spot, even if it will probably not be at Loftus, by beating the Cheetahs 30-27 here.
It was a thrilling contest, marked by some breathtaking tries from outside backs even if defensive organisation and first-time tackling sometimes left a bit to be desired.
The try tally ended 3-3, with Wynand Olivier scything through for a virtuoso one for the Bulls from inside centre to remind everyone of his renewed Springbok credentials now that Jean de Villiers has gone to play in Ireland.
But perhaps the more memorable ones came from the wonderfully inventive and slippery Cheetahs wings, Lionel Mapoe and Fabian Juries – they got three between them. Mapoe is the more muscular of the two, although that fact does not blunt his skills and pace, while Juries is the pocket dynamo with dance steps to remind of the late Michael Jackson or John Travolta – he totally bamboozled some seven or eight Bulls defenders for one of his dot-downs.
The former has already impressed Bok coach Peter de Villiers and would certainly have done so again in this match: he may well be Europe-bound with the enlarged end-of-year national squad.
The Cheetahs spent much of the time on the back foot, with the Bulls pack dominant and Morne Steyn kicking dreamily again both out of hand and at the posts.
But they were always prepared to give the ball counter-attacking air and, in the second half especially, Heinrich Brussow stole a few great balls on the ground.
Both sides looked fairly content at the final whistle because the Bulls had banked the main objective of a win and the Bloemfontein visitors grabbed their bonus point for finishing within seven.
While Griquas, in third place, remain on 38 points and eight points clear of the Cheetahs, there is good reason to think the latter outfit will yet overhaul them – Griquas have to play the Bulls away before the Sharks’ visit to Kimberley and might do well to get any further log points.
The Cheetahs, by contrast, have a blissful finish against the Leopards at home and then the Cavaliers in Wellington – opportunities for maximum match points each time.
For the moment the Lions (32 points) are ahead of them in fifth, two points better off and four shy of the Bulls, but also have a trickier tournament climax with the Sharks and Province to come for them.
Griquas, the 43-3 losers in Cape Town, never looked like getting anything out of their Newlands encounter with a ruthless WP side in monsoon-like conditions that reminded – pools of standing water and all – of the famous World Cup semi-final in Durban in 1995.
Yet Luke Watson’s team, with their pack probably the most cohesive in the Currie Cup right now, simply smashed the men from the dusty, rock-hard diamond fields.
Province’s handling, throughout their ranks and including props Wicus Blaauw and Brok Harris, was admirable under the circumstances and it was a key factor in their scoring the four-try bonus point.
Peter Grant and Joe Pietersen also gave near-masterclasses in tactical kicking with the slippery cake of soap and diminutive Pietersen was safe under the high bomb in the last line of defence.
He, too, is now pressing strongly for a Bok ticket while Juan de Jongh, the exciting centre, showed that he can play confidently on a heavy, saturated pitch – that fact now boosts his chances of a northern hemisphere adventure for his country in November.
Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer for Sport24.co.zaTweet