History not on SA's side for play-offs
THE Sharks have to go back to 1996 for the last time they won a play-off match in Australia, while the Bulls must return to the same year for the last time they beat the Crusaders in Christchurch.
The Sharks' famous semifinal win over Queensland 16 years ago was also the last time they beat the Reds in Brisbane, and one of three play-off victories in nine attempts.
The Bulls, playing as Northern Transvaal 16 winters ago inflicted their first, and to date only, defeat of the Crusaders in Christchurch earlier that same season.
But history does not favour South Africa's two sides in this weekend's play-off matches.
Since the Bulls last beat the Crusaders away, the New Zealanders have evolved into the best side in Super rugby history, with seven titles to their credit and an immaculate 100% record at home in knockout matches. Nothing points to a Bulls win.
The Crusaders might not have been at their consistent best this season, but they have shown at times that they are still the most ruthless team in the competition when the mood takes them.
But it's also easy to forget that this was supposed to be a transitional year for the Bulls after losing nine high-profile players since last season.
The fact that they even made the play-offs - something that eluded them last year - is a victory in itself. Of course they will go into the match knowing they have a chance, but in reality Frans Ludeke's side has already exceeded expectations.
The Bulls have displayed more attacking intent this season, as 50 tries confirms, with wing Bjorn Basson leading the way with 10 tries. They're the second-highest try-scorers this season and the highest scorers of the six teams that made the play-offs.
But defensively the Bulls have been mediocre and have leaked a disappointing 38 tries, the worst of the play-off contenders.
Against the Crusaders in Christchurch, the Bulls' primary task will be to keep a solid defensive line, because the New Zealanders can rip the match away with a blistering two- or three-try spell.
Over in Brisbane, the Sharks, who have played some magnificent rugby this season, interspersed with real dross, are quietly confident of knocking the defending champions over.
The Reds go into the match without talismanic flyhalf Quade Cooper, who is suspended, but with growing confidence after rallying late in the season to pip the Brumbies for top of the Australian conference.
The Sharks are also missing key players in fullback Pat Lambie and centre Frans Steyn, but their pack, especially with Willem Alberts at lock, has a menacing look.