The top three teams on the Vodacom Super Rugby log, the Chiefs, Vodacom Bulls and Brumbies, are basically assured of reaching the playoffs, which means six teams will fight it out for the remaining three positions in the top six.
The Reds, Crusaders and Toyota Cheetahs still have their fate in their own hands in the next two rounds, but the Blues, The Sharks and DHL Stormers will probably have to rely on favours from other teams if they are to progress to the knock-out phase of the competition.
The permutations will be much clearer by Saturday evening around 21h00, when Round 19 concludes in Pretoria with the highly anticipated match between the SA Conference leading Vodacom Bulls and last year’s runners up, The Sharks.
Before that, the Toyota Cheetahs host the Blues in Bloemfontein (kick-off at 14h50) and the DHL Stormers travel to Port Elizabeth to face the Southern Kings (17h05).
But the four SA teams still in the running will watch the two derbies in New Zealand with great interest, as those results will have a major bearing on the final standings.
This weekend will mark the 50th Vodacom Super Rugby appearances of The Sharks and DHL Stormers’ main points contributors as Pat Lambie and Joe Pietersen, who both occupy positions in the Top 10 points scorers for the season, reach a half century of matches at this level.
Toyota Cheetahs v Blues
The Toyota Cheetahs are approaching their encounter with the Blues at the Free State Stadium in Bloemfontein as a knock-out match, as a win on Saturday afternoon will go a very long way in ensuring they reach the Vodacom Super Rugby playoffs for the first time ever.
It will not be easy for the team from Central South Africa though – they have beaten the Blues only once since the Cats split up after the 2005 season and have lost two of their three home matches against the side from Auckland.
But the Blues’ last visit to Bloemfontein, in 2010, ended in misery as they lost their only match ever to the Toyota Cheetahs, by 36-32.
With last week’s disappointing result in Cape Town still fresh in their minds, the Toyota Cheetahs set out to prepare for probably the most important match in their eight-year history. They have a bye next week – and a guaranteed four log points – but would prefer not to sit at home in Bloemfontein chewing their nails as the final round unfolds elsewhere only for them to miss out on the playoffs.
“We’ll approach the Blues game with a final mentality and we view it as our first play-off game," said Toyota Cheetahs coach Naka Drotské.
“We don’t want to be in a situation where we’re sitting at home during the last weekend and hoping other teams get results that will favour us. We have the chance to shape our own destiny in the tournament. Victory over the Blues will guarantee us a place in the play-offs."
The teams are:
Toyota Cheetahs: Hennie Daniller, Willie le Roux, Johann Sadie, Robert Ebersohn, Raymond Rhule, Riaan Smit, Piet van Zyl, Philip van der Walt, Lappies Labuschagné, Heinrich Brüssow, Ligtoring Landman, Lood de Jager, Lourens Adriaanse, Adriaan Strauss (captain), Coenie Oosthuizen. Replacements: Ryno Barnes, Trevor Nyakane, Waltie Vermeulen, Boom Prinsloo, Sarel Pretorius, Elgar Watts, Ryno Benjamin.
Blues: Charles Piutau, Frank Halai, Jackson Willison, Francis Saili, Rene Ranger, Baden Kerr, Jamison Gibson-Park; Peter Saili, Luke Braid, Steven Luatua, Ali Williams (captain), Anthony Boric, Angus Ta'avao, James Parsons, Sam Prattley. Replacements: Keven Mealamu, Ofa Tu'ungafasi, Culum Retallick, Brendon O'Connor, Wayne Ngaluafe, Marty McKenzie, George Moala.
Average score: 36-23 (Blues)
Date: Saturday, 6 July
SA Time: 14h50
Venue: Free State Stadium, Bloemfontein
Referee: Jaco Peyper (South Africa)
Assistant referees: Ben Crouse (South Africa), Francois de Bruin (South Africa)
Television match official: Gerrie Coetzee (South Africa)
Southern Kings v DHL Stormers
Nothing but a solid win in Port Elizabeth will be enough to keep the DHL Stormers’ slim hopes alive of reaching the Vodacom Super Rugby playoffs when they face the Southern Kings on Saturday.
For the Kings, nothing but pride is on the line as they aim to finish the regular season strongly before preparing to take on the MTN Lions in two promotion/relegation matches in the next month.
The DHL Stormers won their first ever encounter with the Southern Kings at DHL Newlands early last month, but the terrible conditions made it anything but a spectacle, as both sides could only score one try each.
This weekend, the Capetonians will be chasing a win and at least four tries as they look for maximum points to keep in touch with the front runners on the standings. Last week’s victory over the Toyota Cheetahs at home was encouraging, but it’s in the past and the DHL Stormers are now only concentrating on their PE visit this weekend.
“I know, from experience, that it’s best to forget about our win over the Cheetahs, and we’ve put in the hard yards ahead of the Southern Kings game,” said DHL Stormers coach Allister Coetzee this week.
“We still want to improve our log position and keep building on what we've been working on during June. I was obviously very pleased with the Cheetahs game, and it gives one confidence, but our plan has always been to win these last three games and that is where the focus is.”
The teams are:
Southern Kings: SP Marais, Michael Killian, Ronnie Cooke, Andries Strauss (captain), Marcello Sampson, Demetri Catrakilis, Shaun Venter, Jacques Engelbrecht, Wimpie van der Walt, Cornell du Preez, Darron Nell, David Bulbring, Grant Kemp, Bandise Maku, Schalk Ferreira. Replacements: Charl du Plessis, Hannes Franklin, Steven Sykes, Devin Oosthuizen, Nicolas Vergallo, George Whitehead, Shane Gates.
DHL Stormers: Joe Pietersen, Gio Aplon, Juan de Jongh, Damian De Allende, Bryan Habana, Elton Jantjies, Louis Schreuder, Nizaam Carr, Deon Fourie (captain), Don Armand, De Kock Steenkamp, Eben Etzebeth, Brok Harris, Scarra Ntubeni, Steven Kitshoff. Replacements: Martin Bezuidenhout, Pat Cilliers, Gerbrandt Grobler, Rynhardt Elstadt, Nic Groom, Gary van Aswegen, Gerhard van den Heever.
Average score: 19-11 (Stormers)
Date: Saturday, 6 July
SA Time: 17h05
Venue: Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium, Port Elizabeth
Referee: Lourens van der Merwe (South Africa)
Assistant referees: Marius Jonker (South Africa), Christie du Preez (South Africa)
Television match official: Deon van Blommestein (South Africa)
Vodacom Bulls v The Sharks
With first place on the Vodacom Super Rugby log a real possibility for the Vodacom Bulls, they will be hoping to fire on all cylinders when they host The Sharks at Loftus Versfeld in Pretoria on Saturday evening.
Playing at Loftus, the Vodacom Bulls and The Sharks have had equal success over the years – four wins each and one draw from their nine encounters in the South African capital.
These matches have generally been quite close, with the average score 20-19 in the favour of the Durbanites perhaps showing they have a slight edge when travelling to Pretoria. But The Sharks’ season has not been easy and it’s something the Vodacom Bulls would like to capitalise on as they aim to repeat their victory in Durban from late May.
“We will face a Sharks team that will be desperate, as they need to win to keep their play-off hopes alive, but we have also goals to achieve and to get there we need to keep on winning,” said Vodacom Bulls coach Frans Ludeke said.
Vodacom Bulls captain Dewald Potgieter said the focus will be solely on doing the basics right as a team: “We are not looking at the bigger picture yet. We need to beat a very strong Sharks side packed with class players and lots of experience. We need to back ourselves, execute what has worked for us for far and most important, show up as a team on Saturday.”
Hugh Reece-Edwards, who shares the head coach responsibilities with Grant Bashford since John Plumtree’s time at The Sharks ended recently, said they were approaching their Loftus visit as a must-win clash.
“We’ve always gone up there and known how we want to play the Bulls and that’s worked for us at times and other times we’ve been physically dominated,” said Reece-Edwards. “We are very aware of their physicality and certainly we know we need to be physical if we want to be in that game.
“The result we need is to come back with a win to have any chance of staying in this competition.
“We have some talented players, some talented backs, and although we don't have a huge number of backs, with what we've got we can certainly play exciting rugby. We know we have to keep the ball in hand for long periods of time against the Bulls and that doesn't change regardless of the style of rugby we want to play.”
The teams are:
Vodacom Bulls: Zane Kirchner, Akona Ndungane, JJ Engelbrecht, Jan Serfontein, Bjorn Basson, Morné Steyn, Francois Hougaard, Dewald Potgieter (captain), Jacques Potgieter, Deon Stegmann, Grant Hattingh, Flip van der Merwe, Werner Kruger, Chiliboy Ralepelle, Dean Greyling. Replacements: Callie Visagie, Frik Kirsten, Wilhelm Steenkamp, Jono Ross, Francois Hougaard, Jürgen Visser, Morné Mellett.
The Sharks: Riaan Viljoen, Odwa Ndungane, Louis Ludik, Butch James, Lwazi Mvovo, Pat Lambie, Charl McLeod, Keegan Daniel (captain), Willem Alberts, Marcell Coetzee, Franco van der Merwe, Edwin Hewitt, Jannie du Plessis, Bismarck du Plessis, Tendai Mtawarira. Replacements: Kyle Cooper, Wiehahn Herbst, Jandré Marais, Jean Deysel, Jacques Botes, Cobus Reinach, Jaco van Tonder.
Average score: 21-18 (Sharks)
Date: Saturday, 6 July
SA Time: 19h15
Venue: Loftus Versfeld, Pretoria
Referee: Jason Jaftha (South Africa)
Assistant referees: Rasta Rasivhenge (South Africa), Sieg van Staden (South Africa)
Television match official: Johann Meuwesen (South Africa)
Other fixtures (SA times):
Friday, 5 July:
09h35: Crusaders v Chiefs (Christchurch)
Saturday, 6 July:
09h35: Hurricanes v Highlanders (Wellington)