Rob Houwing – Sport24 chief writer

Cape Town – Enough
room to swing a cat? It might be a challenge with a hamster.

That is how
desperately cramped, and relatively featureless, the South African conference
in Super Rugby looks at the midway stage of ordinary season.

The latest
round only confirmed how violently up and down the season has been so far …
with the Sharks serving as especially glowing examples this weekend.

Er, did I
say glowing?

Cancel that
thought with some haste: they were utterly pitiful in the big domestic talking
point of Saturday, succumbing 51-17 to the Jaguares before the disbelieving
Kings Park faithful, and by seven tries to two.

Although an
extreme case, the 71-point swing between this and their last result – the
stirring 42-5 triumph over the Lions in Johannesburg only eight days ago – somehow
summed up the broadly see-sawing fortunes of all five teams in the group.

Indeed, the
hallmark of inconsistency and volatility in performance extends into the other
conferences as well, although the New Zealand one at least has a noticeably
standout team in it, as the Crusaders lead the next-best Hurricanes by a fairly
gaping 11 points and are just as clear of any other outfit in the competition.

The gap from
top (now Bulls, 23 points) to bottom (Lions, 18) of the SA conference is a mere
five points, indicating that table-topping for best knockout-phase seeding remains
wide open.

All teams in
the group have played eight matches. As many as four of them — the Bulls (62.5
percent) the exception — boast exactly 50 percent win records, which makes
their worth this year so difficult to gauge.

This week it
was the turn of Bulls, Stormers and Jaguares fans to feel chipper, and
supporters of the Lions and Sharks contrastingly glum.

Currently
fourth, there is one strong reason to submit, as the teams negotiate the turn
ahead of Easter weekend, that the Stormers may actually be best placed of the
conference sides: they have played six of their eight matches away, so now look
forward to a very minimum of travel and six further fixtures at Newlands to
contemplate with relative zeal.

Although the
Bulls head the table after their impressive, Loftus bonus-point victory over
the Reds (32-17), they and the Sharks have the altogether more daunting
knowledge that only three home games still lie ahead for them, and the
additional perils of respective Australasian tours.

The
Jaguares, who have just completed a heartening two-from-two South African
mini-tour, and the Lions have an even split of home and away games for their
own remaining eight apiece.

Here’s a
thought: are the Argentineans headed for a first-time conference win? Don’t
write that prospect off … not if they keep playing with the passion and pace
that left the Sharks chasing shadows (or seemingly not even bothering, so
lamentable was their first-time defence at times) on Saturday.

Durban is
fast becoming a place of deeply pleasant memories for some of the
longer-serving Jaguares personnel, bearing in mind the Pumas’ landmark 2015 Rugby
Championship triumph (37-25) over the Springboks there.

They had a
try hat-trick hero on that occasion – left wing Juan Imhoff – and here it was
the turn of outside centre Matias Orlando to cross the whitewash with that
degree of frequency.

But the
Jaguares do have some toughies ahead, including yet another fatiguing overseas
tour featuring games against the Highlanders, Hurricanes, Waratahs and Reds.

Nevertheless,
if you are tempted to suggest that the SA conference race may now be between
primarily the Bulls and Stormers (so wonderfully fired-up in that tour-ending
Friday triumph over the Rebels in Melbourne) for eventual mastery, bear in mind
that they meet in a fortnight in Cape Town, so one will take another tumble.

The Bulls
have a bye in the meantime, but the Stormers get no immediate respite from
their overseas exertions yet, as they entertain the Brumbies on Saturday with
their body clocks possibly still a little at sixes and sevens.

That said,
they should welcome back at a timely moment core figures who were unavailable at
the back end of their Antipodean trek.

The Bulls
are also slowly filtering back some proven customers, though, and lanky,
fit-again lock RG Snyman was immense in open play against the Reds, roaming and
off-loading like a languid basketballer en route to the player-of-the-match
laurel …

Next weekend’s fixtures (home teams
first, all kick-offs SA time):

Friday:
Chiefs v Lions, 09:35; Sunwolves v Hurricanes, 12:00; Sharks v Reds, 15:05.
Saturday: Highlanders v Blues, 09:35; Waratahs v Rebels, 11:45; Stormers v
Brumbies, 15:05. Byes: Bulls, Crusaders, Jaguares.

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter:
@RobHouwing …

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