What’s happening in the South African conference?

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If the Cheetahs of South Africa are unwanted by their Super Rugby partners, why delay the inevitable? (AFP PHOTO / Saeed KHAN)

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Usually by the eve of Super Rugby Round 11, I’m able to say I’ve got a handle on the South African conference. That’s not so this year.

Right now the top South African side has only the fifth best points total in the competition. The fourth placed Stormers are only four points behind the leading Bulls. Sandwiched in between are the Cheetahs and the Sharks.

I’m not saying by Round 11 the South African conference is always done and dusted, just that I usually have a much better ‘feel’ of what might happen.

The top team or two has started to establish their position at the top of the pecking order and that’s just not the case this year.

A close table isn’t the only way it’s become hard to judge the sides. The styles and qualities of the teams seem to be fluctuating wildly.

The Sharks were the team who played the best rugby of the South African sides last year. That was mostly done over the back half of the year and continued through to a final which was a bridge to far (or plane ride too far).

That side hasn’t looked at all similar this year. There is a lack of attacking potency and aggressive intent.

Their defensive record is the best in the competition, but that same defensive line isn’t turning over ball or rocking back ball runners too often. Most sides manage to kick penalties against the Sharks, which demonstrates how hard scoring tries is.

But the fact there is so many kickable chances shows they do employ a “bend-don’t-break” style rather than a dominant turnovers and counter-attacking style.

Safe to say, that’s vastly different to the team who pounced on ruck deficiencies and flooded down the field with the ball after turnovers last year.

Second in the conference are the Cheetahs who are continuing an upward trend from last year’s feisty attacking outfit. Suddenly they’ve found a backbone and aren’t leaking bundles of points together or killing themselves with stupid mistakes.

But where are the mistakes? What about shooting themselves in the foot? Allowing points in bunches? All those typical Cheetahs features?

In previous years it was the composure and a certain frailty that let the Cheetahs down. This year they’ve shown heart and application in loads. They’ve also travelled already which puts them in a fine position for the rest of the competition. Look out.

Defence has been a strong point for the Stormers but it’s that stuttering attack that has caused them to stumble again. Last year they led the competition in defensive aggression and solidity. They were bundled out of the competition when being able to adapt and counter-attack was asked of them and no response came.

This year the coaching staff have tried to expand their attacking abilities; notably, trying Elton Jantjies at fly-half.

As a team there has been an obvious willingness to move the ball more as well. But it just hasn’t happened for them yet.

And look at the games they’ve played so far: Bulls, Sharks, Chiefs, Brumbies, Crusaders, Cheetahs and Sharks. It might be the hardest draw so far and they’re only now going on their big tour.

We don’t even have the Lions to talk about which is strange in itself. Their replacements, the Kings have been a great addition to the tournament though.

They’ve made a name for themselves with a very plucky and, on balance, successful tour of Australia and New Zealand. They came away with more points than many believed was possible.

It doesn’t seem like they’re going to figure in the finals but are only 13 points back from the Bulls.

They certainly haven’t disgraced themselves up ’til now, that’s for sure.

The only side with any semblance of consistency from game to game, indeed from last year to this are the Bulls who sit atop the log. That consistency has come in runs of wins or losses for the Bulls; three wins, three losses and now a two game win-streak is how their season has unfolded.

Fairly enough the losses have come against better teams in the competition but that also points out the fact they’ve not beaten anyone really good yet.

That is unless you include beating the Stormers, Sharks or Cheetahs who are just below them on the log.

Yep, that South African conference is all very weird and circular so far.

Safe to say there’s a hell of a lot of shaking-out to occur in that top group of four teams this year. If there was a conference that doesn’t provide three teams for the finals this year I’d bet on this one. It may be they fight each other so closely no two teams standout far enough to qualify both.

At the moment the Cheetahs are only in sixth overall by the skin of their teeth with the Sharks and Hurricanes on the same number of points and a game in hand.

The Stormers and Sharks have arrived in New Zealand for their tour now. The next few weeks could be big in the South African conference. Both teams will need to emulate the successes of the Cheetahs and Bulls while they were away.

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