Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Floundering: that is the only way to describe the two Highveld franchises in Super Rugby at the point when the plug was pulled indefinitely due to the coronavirus … particularly if compared to their corresponding starts to last year’s campaign.
By contrast, the South African coastal pair of the Sharks and Stormers are each more promisingly placed than after their equivalent number of matches in 2019, though perhaps not by quite as much as some might have anticipated.
Here are the statistical match-ups …
After seven games this year: six wins, one loss, 24 points
After seven games last year: four wins, three losses, 21 points
Difference: Three points better off
The KwaZulu-Natalians ended at the recent, enforced “cut” as the team with the most points overall across the competition, a very satisfying state of affairs even with some challengers right on their tails.
Surprisingly, though, they are only three points superior than they were last year after the same number of fixtures … despite two more victories.
There is one obvious reason: all their 2020 wins have come without the addition of a bonus point, making them the only team alongside the bottom-placed Sunwolves tournament-wide not to have registered a single success in that regard.
While the 2019 Sharks, then under Robert du Preez’s tutelage, had had a hugely inconsistent passage after seven games, they did get “full house” victories three times (Sunwolves, Blues and Lions) plus losing bonus points against each of the Stormers and Bulls.
Keep in mind also that last year’s Sharks had not had their main Australasian tour yet: Sean Everitt’s buoyant 2020 charges are done and dusted on that front, with three commendable victories out of four, so their position is even rosier in many respects than it may appear.
After six games this year: four wins, two losses, 17 points
After six games last year: three wins, three losses, 14 points
Difference: Three points better off
This year’s Stormers are one win better as things stand than in 2019, despite the fact that both of their last two games before the suspension this season were defeats … dulling some of the positives from that roaring, four-out-of-four start.
Still under Robbie Fleck’s coaching regime, they began the last campaign with an unceremonious bump, losing 40-3 to the Bulls in a Loftus derby, before a three-game recovery that saw them post wins against all of the Lions, Sharks and Jaguares before two, start-of-tour reverses to the Hurricanes and Blues.
This year’s Stormers – also now riddled with injuries to key Springboks and some others – have not yet set foot out of South Africa.
After six games this year: one win, five losses, six points
After six games last year: four wins, two losses, 17 points
Difference: 11 points worse off
The 2019 Bulls (eventually qualifiers for the knockouts) were a whole three victories superior to their 2020 showing to this point, which really sums up their current pickle.
They’d thrashed the Stormers (40-3) at Loftus, beaten the Lions (30-12) in nearby Johannesburg, whipped the Sharks back in Pretoria (37-14) and also seen off the Durban-based visitors again in a rematch at the seaside (19-16), though played clear second fiddle to the Chiefs at Loftus and Jaguares in Buenos Aires.
Pote Human’s 2020 outfit can only boast one win (Highlanders 38-13 at Loftus) from their half-dozen completed assignments, and were already up against it on a cut-short tour: a 41-17 defeat to the Reds after frittering a 17-0 advantage early in the Brisbane tussle.
After six games this year: one win, five losses, five points
After six games last year: four wins, two losses, 18 points
Difference: 13 points worse off
The men from the Big Smoke have been the biggest South African “fallers” in log points terms when measured against the corresponding period in 2019.
Clinging to that lone home success so far against the Reds on February 8 in the present campaign, the one excuse they can muster when weighed against their equivalent start last season is that three of their losses have come on the difficult trek across the Indian Ocean – they’d had one tour match still to play (Highlanders, Dunedin) when the suspension took effect.
In 2019, they’d already done a praiseworthy “double” over strong eventual finalists the Jaguares, winning 25-16 away and 47-39 at home.