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South Africa’s prospects tested in 12th round of Super Rugby

May 2, 2019

WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) — The chances of a South African team winning the Super Rugby title this season, for the first time in nine years, are likely to be measured in a series of games in the 12th round.

Super Rugby’s South African conference has developed this season in a tough, internecine contest of closely-matched teams in which the first-placed and last-placed franchises share 5-5 records, separated in the standings only by bonus points.

That closeness likely leaves all five conference teams, including Argentina’s Jaguares, still in the race for playoffs positions. But no South African team has yet been able to emerge from the pack, firmly establish itself as the best in the conference and as a serious threat to the New Zealand and Australian conference leaders.

The Durban-based Sharks took a step forward last weekend when they beat the New South Wales Waratahs in Sydney. An ability to win consistently outside South Africa is a prerequisite for any of the conference’s teams aiming to win the Super Rugby title.

But any claim the Sharks may have to their first Super Rugby championship will be tested when they face the defending champion Crusaders in Christchurch on Friday.

The Crusaders comfortably brushed off the Johannesburg-based Lions, their finals opponents in each of the last two years, in last weekend’s round, suggesting a broad gulf between form in the New Zealand and South African conferences.

In another yardstick match this weekend, the Bulls will host the struggling Waratahs in Pretoria in a match which is important in re-igniting their campaign.

Australian teams have enjoyed mixed results in South Africa this season. The Melbourne Rebels lost to the Sharks in the sixth round but the Queensland Reds beat the Sharks in Durban in round 10 after previously losing to the Bulls.

At the same time, South African teams have had mixed results in New Zealand and Australia. The Cape Town-based Stormers lost two matches in New Zealand and one in Australia before beating Australian conference leaders the Rebels 41-17 in Melbourne.

The Lions beat the Chiefs in Hamilton for the second straight year but were outclassed 36-10 by the Crusaders. That doesn’t eclipse the fact they’ve reached the final in three straight years and beat the Crusaders once on their way through the playoffs.

Recent results suggest to some degree that inter-conference playoffs matches could be close this season and that home advantage, something enjoyed by the conference winners, may be influential.

The Sharks would clearly enhance their playoffs prospects if they can even get close to the Crusaders in Christchurch.

Their win over the Waratahs continued a season of erratic performances in which they had previously been beaten at home by the Reds and Jaguares after thrashing the Bulls away.

One of the factors in those muddled performances is that their game, like that of all South African teams except for the Lions, is based on kicking. By not holding onto possession they have made themselves reactive to the tactics of their opponents and not pro-active in establishing their own style.

A continuation of that style will be costly against the Crusaders, who tend to score in rapid bursts and will pile on points if the Sharks cannot deprive them of possession for long periods.

That will be made more difficult by the absence of prop Tendai Mtawarira, one of the Sharks’ key players, who has returned to South Africa with a knee injury.

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