The current leaders are the Bulls, but just four points separate them from the fourth-placed Stormers and third-placed Sharks, while the Cheetahs are just a point behind.
The Bulls, Cheetahs and Stormers all won this weekend, while the Sharks lost 37-29 to the Chiefs in Hamilton, but collected a bonus point for scoring four tries.
This will be regarded as something of a success for the Sharks, especially since they were 24-0 down after just 17 minutes, and went into the match against the defending champions with several first-choice players out injured or on the bench.
And they could easily have picked up a second bonus point, were it not for a last-minute penalty conceded to Aaron Cruden.
The Bulls maintained a narrow lead at the top of the conference by beating the Waratahs 30-19 at Loftus Versfeld.
The match was a lot tougher than the scoreline suggests, but with the Bulls enjoying in the region of 60% of possession and territory they were clearly the better side, whatever sore loser Michael Cheika might have said after the game.
Waratahs coach Cheika had a full go at Argentinian referee Francisco Pastrana after the loss, which was a bit rich after his team had spent most of the match parked offsides, thereby making it much harder for the Bulls to penetrate their in-your-face defence.
But in such situations the Bulls have a tailor-made solution in flyhalf Morné Steyn and the Springbok calmly collected 25 points through six penalties, a conversion and a try. He looked like he was having a stroll in the park at times, and it was fantastic to see the hero of the 2009 season back at his best.
The Waratahs’ refusal to toe the line when it came to staying on-sides or rolling away in the tackle saw Steyn slot four first-half penalties to put the Bulls 12-5 ahead at the break.
The visitors’ only points in the first half came shortly before half-time when fullback Israel Folau tore through the Bulls’ defences for a brilliant try.
The Bulls generally did a good job in defence, but another lapse four minutes into the second half saw flank Michael Hooper bursting through and replacement prop Paddy Ryan finishing off the try to bring the Waratahs back on level terms at 12-12.
A Steyn penalty, after Ryan had kicked the ball away when miles offside, returned the lead to the Bulls 14 minutes later, but it was clear the persistent offending of the Waratahs was really starting to irk the home side. Captain Pierre Spies had a word with Pastrana, who agreed that Ryan’s offence had been cynical but did not deserve a yellow card because “he’s a front-ranker, you know”, said with a shrug of the shoulders.
The Bulls brushed off Pastrana’s leniency and a compelling mix of forward drives and sending the ball out wide saw them up the intensity on the hour mark. The Bulls were hard on attack, but former Lions star Jano Vermaak then deflected a long pass from Steyn that was intended for the man outside him, and once Folau had pounced on the loose ball, there was little doubt a try would be the outcome at the other end, flyhalf Bernhard Foley getting it.
But with Steyn in regal form and keeping the Bulls going forward, the home side scored 15 points in the last 13 minutes to clinch victory. Replacement scrumhalf Francois Hougaard, who was given a reception worthy of the mayor of Pretoria when he finally returned to action as a 53rd-minute substitute, dived over the side of a ruck to score after Steyn had been stopped just short of the line, before the flyhalf added a penalty and a try of his own.
Cheika may be upset with the referee, but he should perhaps turn his attention to the eight lineouts the Waratahs lost – Juandré Kruger and Flip van der Merwe were superb for the Bulls – and the poor goalkicking of Brendan McKibbin, who succeeded with just one of his four kicks at goal.
The Cheetahs beat the Southern Kings 26-12 but again, the match was tougher than the scoreline suggests.
The Kings had plenty of possession and enjoyed long stints in Cheetahs territory, but they did not have the skill or finishing ability of the hosts on attack.
The Cheetahs were excellent on defence and adept at creating space, and also dominated the breakdowns. Loose forwards Philip van der Walt and Lappies Labuschagne were formidable on defence and also superb on attack, and there is plenty of pace among the backs in the form of Raymond Rhule, Piet van Zyl and Willie le Roux, and turning opportunities into points was the home side’s most notable strength.
It’s always easy to criticise from the comfort of the armchair, but with that in mind, the Cheetahs really should have scored a fourth try in the last 35 minutes for a bonus point that would have put them on top of the conference.
The Stormers saw off the Hurricanes 18-16 in Palmerston North in a game also marred by lenient refereeing.
Steve Walsh should be hauled before the chairman of the referees’ panel to explain why Ben Franks escaped a yellow card, first for punching and then for twice collapsing the Stormers’ rolling maul on his own tryline in the space of two minutes, the Hurricanes having already lost one player for the same offence.
Duane Vermeulen was surely the man of the match as he put in an immense performance at eighthman, making 17 tackles and running 46 bullocking metres with ball-in-hand, the most for the Stormers.
The match-winning try came in the 63rd minute as Gio Aplon ran a fabulous line to back up Vermeulen’s charge off the back of a scrum.
Credit too must go to De Kock Steenkamp for some crucial lineout steals and captain Jean de Villiers for ensuring the Stormers were tactically astute in the way they handled the strong wind blowing down the ground. Hats off too to Bryan Habana for charging down a conversion attempt, those two points being the difference between the two sides in the end.
Sharks coach John Plumtree would have been dismayed by his team’s shoddy start and slack defending in their match against the Chiefs, but the character shown in the fightback and some of the fine attacking play would have pleased him no end.
With the Sharks 24-0 down inside the first quarter, there was fat chance of them getting anything from the game, but the seeds of their revival were sown in the set-pieces, which they dominated in impressive fashion.
Unfortunately, Keegan Daniel seemed to have forgotten this when, 15 minutes before the end of the game, he took a quick tap when the Sharks were awarded a penalty under the Chiefs’ poles, when he really should have called for a scrum, lineout or even kicked the penalty to close the deficit to just five points.
The Chiefs defence scrambled well and loose forward Tanerau Latimer got away with murder when he scooped the ball out of a ruck while on his knee. When the Sharks finally did get back on to attack and Pat Lambie kicked a penalty to make the score 29-34, there were only two minutes remaining.
Daniel then erred again when he went off his feet at a ruck and conceded the late penalty that cost the Sharks a potentially crucial point.
The Sharks also laboured under the burden of having two anonymous wings in Odwa Ndungane and Piet Lindeque, even though their attacking play was much better, forced by the massive early deficit.
Their set-pieces were also excellent, while Lubabalo Mthembu made a highly encouraging first start at eighthman.