March 15, 2010
IT IS clear the Bulls and Crusaders are the teams to beat, even this early in the season, and the most likely to appear in this year's final.
The Bulls have been the tournament standouts - quickly dominating opponents, adapting their game and increasing the pace whenever threatened, as they did on Saturday when defeating the Highlanders in Pretoria to remain the only unbeaten team.
Admittedly, the Bulls are taking advantage of a great schedule - playing four of their first five matches at home at Loftus Versfeld - before a month away in Australia and New Zealand. Their run to the semi-finals is also ideal - three straight games at home before the final-round match against the Stormers in Cape Town.
You can mark them down as semi-final certainties, not surprising considering they have three of South Africa's most dominant players - halfback Fourie du Preez, five-eighth Morne Steyn and second-rower Victor Matfield.
The Crusaders are not that far behind. Forget the off night against the Reds in round two because, since then, with All Blacks five-eighth Daniel Carter again dominant in midfield, and New Zealand skipper Richie McCaw returning from injury, they are compiling one impressive victory after another. Their defeat of the Chiefs in Hamilton on Friday night is indicative of their self-confidence.
Where two of the Australian threats - the Waratahs and Brumbies - stand against the two has been half-discovered. The Waratahs and Brumbies had the misfortune of playing the Bulls in Pretoria in recent weeks and each succeeded in antagonising the Super 14 titleholders. The Waratahs produced some of their most impressive attacking football of the season, but that was not enough to achieve success, while the Brumbies began well but faded.
However, each team received a confidence boost in knowing that they are not that far behind the Bulls and if Super 14 semi-finals are played in Australia they will have a better chance.
Also in the Waratahs' and Brumbies' favour is that luck is going their way. The Waratahs were fortunate against both the Reds and Sharks. Triumphs in Brisbane and Sydney have put them midfield.
The Brumbies are playing nowhere near the best. Their victory against the Sharks in Canberra on Saturday night was a replica of their performance the previous week against the Lions. They did just enough to win and it keeps them hovering, even though their inability to tally bonus points is working against them.
More will be revealed when the Waratahs play the Crusaders in Christchurch on April 10, and the Brumbies head to the same venue on May 14.