WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) — At the start of the current Super Rugby season South Africa-based teams adopted jerseys with super hero designs to be worn in derby matches.
The Johannesburg-based Lions chose a Spider-Man motif, the Pretoria-based Bulls went for Captain America, the Durban-based Sharks selected Black Panther and the Cape Town-based Stormers were Thor.
More than four months later it seems some of those super powers have rubbed off.
For the first time in the 23-year history of Super Rugby all five teams from the South Africa conference are in the playoffs or in contention in the last round of the regular season.
Argentina's Jaguares, who play in the Africa conference, have earned a home quarterfinal in Buenos Aires for the first time after topping the conference. Along with the Jaguares, the Bulls, Lions and Stormers are all currently inside the top eight playoff zone and the Sharks are only a point outside in ninth place.
This weekend's final round of regular season games likely will see a constant shuffling of positions as some teams tumble out of the top-eight and others lift themselves into the playoffs. But South Africa is sure to have at least three teams in the playoffs and possibly four while Australia and New Zealand might only supply two teams each.
It is in the nature of the Super Rugby draw that the regular season ends with derby matches where possible and that means the four South African teams are drawn against each other. The Stormers will host the Sharks in Cape Town and the Bulls will play the Lions in Pretoria.
Stormers coach Robbie Fleck said he won't be underestimating the Sharks.
"The Sharks have a decent off-loading game and it was a strength of theirs in the (domestic) Currie Cup," Fleck said. "We do have to be careful of that. We are going to have to present a decent defensive line and knock them back in the tackle. If they manage to get in behind us that is when their offloading becomes very difficult to defend against."
South African teams still have a tough task ahead of them. Because of the success of the Jaguares this season there will not be a quarterfinal in South Africa for the first time since the conference system has been used.
History shows that winning playoff matches overseas is a tough task.
But one of the strengths of the South African teams this season has been their ability to win away from home. Of the 16 matches South African teams have played in Australia and New Zealand this season, they have lost only six.
While that is cause for confidence, there are still areas of concern for the South Africans. There appears to be a substantial gulf between the top four teams — the Crusaders, Hurricanes, ACT Brumbies and Jaguares — and the chasing pack.
The best of the South Africa-based teams — the Bulls — tallied seven points fewer than the Brumbies and 22 points fewer than the first-placed Crusaders. At the same time only two of the South African teams — the Bulls and the Sharks — currently have positive points differentials.
South African commentators have pointed out that while the Crusaders, Hurricanes, Brumbies and Jaguares have averaged 60 tries apiece so far this season the Sharks have managed only 38, the Bulls 35 and the Stormers 34. The Lions did better with 51 but that was well down on the 77 they scored last year. At the same time, the Lions have conceded 57 tries, well above the average of the top-placed teams.
The season has been an especially good one for South African teams so far, heartening in a World Cup year. Weekend matches could make it a super one.
More AP sports: https://apnews.com/apf-sports and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports