Sanzarrugby.com wraps up the three part series where we run the rule over teams so far and take a look at their chances as we enter the final stretch of the regular season.

We conclude with the South African Conference, who are positioned as the bottom performing country overall, with four teams in the bottom six.

SUMMARY: While the Sharks fly the flag and have established the first major break at the top of the table, now five points clear, only the Bulls have any chance of joining Jake White’s team in the knockout stage of the season.

The Lions promising start has been tarnished, the Cheetahs record season last year is a distant memory while the Stormers haven’t been so far down the table since 1996.


Bulls
24 competition points, tenth overall, second in South Africa

STORY SO FAR: Four wins from eleven matches should have edged the Bulls out of final’s reckoning, but five losing bonus points have kept them within the shadows of the top six, even if they are poor travellers. Six losses on the road have been critical, and as one of just two teams (along with the Cheetahs) to have played 11 games, time is running out.

CRYSTAL BALL: The Bulls are striving for what would be their third consecutive Super Rugby Finals Series appearance, matching the record set as they marched towards their first title between 2005 and 2007. An ideal close to their campaign, three home games and local trips to Johannesburg and Cape Town, could see them squeak home but they would need to claim a least four of their five.

SQUAD WATCH: The Bulls second major exodus in several years has been felt this time around, even if one of the least experienced squads in recent memory from Pretoria still has its moments. Victor Matfield’s significant return has proved to be a big factor in their competitiveness despite fewer Springboks than any other side bar the Lions.

TITLE CHANCE OR DAMAGE TEAM: The Bulls will need to finish with a major head of steam, but with all of their international travels completed they are still within top six calculations, even though they will have to rely on other results.


Cheetahs
15 competition points, fifteenth overall, fifth in South Africa

STORY SO FAR: One win and a one-point loss after their opening fortnight saw the Cheetahs then become the first South African team to tour, and four losses in Australasia, despite scoring 90 points in their final three overseas games, was a blow they have never recovered from. They shared 86 points against the defending champions, while they have been competitive in recent derby matches, but just two wins are unyielding.

CRYSTAL BALL: Third overall in terms of points scored and equal third with tries registered, the Cheetahs attack continues to function but the goal of tightening up the defence hasn’t eventuated and will be the primary work on in the remaining five games. Three remaining fixtures in Bloemfontein, where the side has only lost twice in 2014, will be a chance to repay the faithful.

SQUAD WATCH: There is plenty of talent in the team – Willie Le Roux is among the competition’s best attackers and up front Andries Strauss and Heinrich Brussow have been their usually industrious selves, but the perfect balance is still to be found. Sparkling on attack and possessing a clear never say die attitude even in the face of big opposition scores, once again inability to fall back on their defensive systems is costing them.

TITLE CHANCE OR DAMAGE TEAM: While the Cheetahs are below the line when it comes to Super Rugby Finals Series qualification, they are a serious threat to other sides considering their pedigree with ball in hand. It is unprecedented that a ‘cellar dweller’ has scored so many tries, and sometimes the fact that a team knows they are out of title reckoning can give them the freedom to run amok.


Lions
16 competition points, twelfth overall, third in South Africa

STORY SO FAR: At one point it looked as if the Lions were going to be the darlings of the 2014 season, when they gleefully tore up the form book when winning four of their first six matches, but since then they have scored just one try in four games and have lost each by at least 13 points. Their dependence on Marnitz Boshoff has shifted, but the inexperience of their squad cannot be underestimated, 17 of their 23 against the Chiefs were playing their first Super Rugby game in New Zealand.

CRYSTAL BALL: From here on in the Lions could still create a result or two, but much of that will depend how many points they can earn with three matches still in the Antipodes. Their final three games of the season, with a bye in that run, could be what allows the team to finish with a bit of pride.

SQUAD WATCH: The Lions will rely on the likes of captain Warren Whiteley, fellow back rower Derick Minnie and their two quite different tens in Boshoff and Elton Jantjies to guide a team that is certainly enthusiastic but is struggling as more experienced teams begin to find their Super Rugby groove. The early dependence on kicking is causing issues to find their ball in hand rhythm. 

TITLE CHANCE OR DAMAGE TEAM: The Lions slip up on the road has all but ruled a line through their final’s chances, but they could sneak an upset on the road before getting the vast stands at Ellis Park to shake with another victory or two to close out their return to Super Rugby.


Sharks
35 competition points, first overall, first in South Africa

STORY SO FAR: The Sharks are the leading side in the competition and for good reason, some might question their softer opening to Super Rugby than most teams, but eight wins in ten matches has them ideally positioned for final’s qualification, while they are the best defensive team in the competition.

CRYSTAL BALL: Their almost perfect opening to the season has them on the verge of playing Super Rugby Finals Series, while their feats in Melbourne, the first South African team in 14 matches to win overseas this year, has them in pole position. However they have bar none the toughest close, three away matches against fellow contenders the Brumbies, Crusaders and Blues and just one home game in their last six will be an immense challenge.

SQUAD WATCH: Quite possibly the most uncompromising pack in the competition has created a near impenetrable defensive blockade in the tight, an all-Springboks front row and a giant combination of loose forwards are setting the tone for what is considered a ‘typical’ Jake White team, quite happy to absorb punishment while Frans Steyn – arguably their best player – keeps scoring in blocks of three. 

TITLE CHANCE OR DAMAGE TEAM: The Sharks are a title chance, with an ironclad defence and a storming start which could in theory see them afford to lose a few matches towards the close. For all of their stoic strengths, the 12th ranked attack by tries scored could be a small chink, the Highlanders running game exposed the men from Durban – and they will face more potent offences in the coming weeks.


Stormers
15 competition points, fourteenth overall, fourth in South Africa

STORY SO FAR: For a team that has been the defensive benchmark for years and is a two-time South African Conference winner, the 2014 Super Rugby season represents a failure for the Stormers, continuing a merciless trend in the tournament where nothing seems to go right for at least one major franchise. A side that established such a proud travelling record in 2011 and 2012 hasn’t won a single game on the road this campaign. The last team to make excuses, the cold reality is that the Stormers have had the worst injury toll by an unhealthy margin.

CRYSTAL BALL: Moving forward the Stormers have a good closing run, with their overseas quota completed and four matches at Newlands from their last six. Their flamboyant win over an inform Highlanders could be the mythical stick in the sand, it was the first time this season they had ran more than their opposition and it resulted in their first four-try bonus point of 2014. 

SQUAD WATCH: With their extensive casualty ward slowly emptying, the Stormers must be wishing the season was still in its infancy as this is a team beginning to hit their straps. Schalk Burger seems to be growing taller with every outing, while the clear shift away from defence to attack is bringing out the best in players like Damien de Allende and Jean de Villiers.

TITLE CHANCE OR DAMAGE TEAM: The Stormers will not challenge for the 2014 Super Rugby title, a horror combination of major injuries and perhaps the toughest opening of any team (with one home game in six) has put an end to those hopes. With five of their six remaining matches being derbies, the chance to be a local giant killer is strong. Deliciously four of them are against the Bulls and Sharks.