South African teams under spotlight in Super Rugby's Round 5

WELLINGTON, New Zealand — The fifth round of the Super Rugby season may help answer a big question: How strong are the South African teams?

The round features four matches between South African sides and teams from other conferences, and may help shine light on the perplexing issue of the performance of teams from South Africa in this and recent seasons.

The Johannesburg-based Lions have reached the tournament final in each of the last two years, losing to the Wellington-based Hurricanes in 2016 and the Christchurch-based Crusaders last year.

After four rounds of the current season, the Lions again top the African conference with three wins from four games while the Durban-based Sharks, Pretoria-based Bulls and Cape Town-based Stormers have only three wins among them.

The Lions' only loss this season came last week, at home to the Auckland-based Blues, and raised particular questions about the Lions strength as the Blues were winless and clearly the weakest of the five New Zealand teams.

Confounding the estimation of South African strength, the Bulls' only win so far came at the expense of the Hurricanes in the first round, the Sharks have drawn with the New South Wales Waratahs while the Stormers, after beating Argentina's Jaguares in the first round, were at least competitive in tour matches against the Waratahs, Crusaders and Highlanders.

In this weekend's round, the Bulls play the Chiefs in Hamilton, the Sharks face the ACT Brumbies in Canberra, the Stormers meet the Blues in Cape Town and the Lions take on the Sunwolves, now part of the Australia conference, in Johannesburg.

The Lions are expected to win against the Sunwolves who are the only team in the tournament without a win after four rounds, but the tasks of the other three teams are tougher.

The Bulls desperately need a win over the injury-hit Chiefs to get their season underway and to have any chance of challenging the Lions for first place in the Africa conference. The Chiefs are without a number of key players this weekend: All Blacks props Nepo Laulala and Kane Hames, lock Dominic Bird, center Charlie Ngatai and winger Shaun Stevenson are all injured and Damian McKenzie has been forced to move from flyhalf to fullback.

That opens a chance for the Bulls but their record in New Zealand is not strong, and the Chiefs have shown a strong fighting spirit this season, beating the Blues and putting up a good show against the Crusaders before last weekend's bye.

Bulls coach John Mitchell, who previously coached the Chiefs and played for the franchise's central Waikato provice, said his team must seize the chance to reverse several seasons of under-performance.

"Clearly we know where we want to head to and we know what we want to do," Mitchell said. "It's just the timeline. We don't know how long it will take."

The Sharks begin a four-week Australasian tour with their match against the Brumbies. The teams have in common the fact that their only wins this season came at the expense of Japan's Sunwolves and both now need a win to remain competitive in their conferences.

"They obviously have to get their campaign on the road and for us it's really important that we start our tour well," Sharks coach Robert du Preez said. "They're not scared to run the ball out of their own territory. We need to dominate their pack."

The Stormers have to recover quickly from a taxing tour to Australia and New Zealand to take on a Blues team whose spirits have been lifted by last weekend's win over the Lions. Injuries to winger Seabelo Senatla and fullback S.P. Marais are costly to the Stormers, who have also been hit by a flu bug which passed through their camp this week, affecting players and management.

"The guys pitched up for a training session and a meeting (on Tuesday), but we had to send half the management members home as well as a good few players, so it was pointless doing anything," coach Robbie Fleck said.

In other matches, the Jaguares host Queensland in Buenos Aires on Saturday and the unbeaten Melbourne Rebels, 3-0, play New South Wales at Sydney on Sunday.

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