Super Rugby Preview: SA Conference closer than it's ever been

The leadership of the South African Conference is up for grabs once more this weekend in the title race.

The leadership of the South African Conference is up for grabs once more this weekend in the title race. Picture:

CAPE TOWN - The 2015 season is shaping up as the most-closely contested South African Conference title race since the expansion of Super Rugby in 2011.

The leadership of the SA Conference is up for grabs once more this weekend after four teams have already topped the local log so far this season, with anyone of the Bulls, Stormers and Sharks that could be on top on Saturday night.

A mere four log points separate the top four South African teams, with the Bulls on 24 (after eight matches), Stormers on 22 (eight), Lions on 21 (nine) and the Sharks on 20 (nine).

And even the fifth-placed Cheetahs are not out of the running as they trail the Sharks by seven points with a game in hand.

Last year at a similar stage, the difference was a massive 21 points, but only the Sharks ended up making the play-offs.

In 2013, the difference between teams one and four in South Africa was eight points at roughly the halfway stage of the competition, with the Bulls and Cheetahs eventually proceeding to the play-offs and the Stormers and Sharks just missing out in positions seven and eight.

In 2012, a total of 12 points separated the teams from first to fourth at a similar stage and in the end the Stormers, Bulls and the Sharks made the play-offs, South Africa's most successful season yet in terms of representation in the top six.

Halfway through the season in the first year of Super Rugby in 2011, the difference between the first and fourth South African teams was 20 points and in the end, only the Stormers and Sharks progressed to the knock-out stages.

Force v Stormers, Perth: Saturday: 13h35

The Stormers pack shows three changes and one positional shift from last weekend, Bongi Mbnambi (hooker), Ruan Botha (lock) and Siya Kolisi (flank) will start, while Schalk Burger moves to the other side of the scrum.

In the backline, the only change is at scrumhalf, where Louis Schreuder is rotated with Nic Groom, the latter moving to the bench where he will be joined by Scarra Ntubeni. Manuel Carizza (lock) and Michael Rhodes (flank) are injured and were not considered.

The Stormers have won three from their four visits to Perth, but they have not scored four tries in the Western Australian capital since 2008.

The Capetonians are aiming to win consecutive away matches Down Under for the first time since April 2012, when they beat the Reds and the Force in Australia. The Force failed to reach double figures in their last two defeats against the Stormers.

In the last two seasons, the Force have won three from seven against South African opposition and lost four, in Perth it reads two wins from three. Three of the last four meetings between the sides have seen a total of 32 or fewer points scored.

Sharks v Bulls, Durban: Saturday 17h05

The return of Springbok props Tendai Mtawarira and Jannie du Plessis, for Dale Chadwick and Lourens Adriaanse respectively, are the only changes to the Sharks' starting team.

Adriaanse moves to the bench where he is joined by SP Marais, in for Jack Wilson. Chadwick drops out of the match-23 completely.

Rested Springboks Handré Pollard and Adriaan Strauss are back in the Bulls' starting team. Jacques-Louis Potgieter drops out because of injury and Callie Visagie moves to the bench.

The other changes to the starting line-up are at flank, lock and tighthead prop, where Jacques du Plessis (for Arno Botha), Flip van der Merwe (for Du Plessis) and Marcel van der Merwe (for Trevor Nyakane) will start.

Botha, Nyakane and Lappies Labuschagne have been included on the bench while Hanro Liebenberg is not involved this week.

Between them, the Bulls and the Sharks have featured in six Vodacom Super Rugby finals (1996, 2001, 2007, 2009, 2010 and 2012), which includes the epic 2007 showdown edged by the men from Pretoria with the last movement of the game. Since that final in 2007, the Bulls have won three from five in Durban, but lost there by 31-16 last year.

The Sharks have not lost three successive Super Rugby matches for almost two years, since May 2013.

After a slow start in the early years of Super 12 against their coastal cousins, the Bulls have won eight of the last 11 derbies between these two sides, but never by a double figure margin.

It's clearly the year of the fullback as Jessie Kriel, with 802m gained, and SP Marais (672m) rank first and third respectively for metres gained this season.

Cheetahs v Reds, Bloemfontein: Saturday 19h10

The Cheetahs have made only one change to their match-23 for this encounter, Springbok fullback Willie le Roux will get a break and has been replaced by Coenie van Wyk, who played for the Lions last year but will make his debut for the men in orange.

It's been more than five years since the Reds' last victory in Bloemfontein, on 26 March 2010 when they won 31-10. It was the only time in four starts that the Cheetahs had lost at home against the team from Queensland.

The Cheetahs win twice as many matches at home against teams from Australia compared to Kiwi opposition, against the Aussies, they are on 12 wins from 18 (66.7%) in Central South Africa, while that figure drops to seven from 22 (31.8%) against New Zealand teams.

The Reds have now lost six matches in a row. Last year they also lost six on the trot (Rounds 8-14), but their worst-ever losing sequence of nine straight defeats was between February and April 2007.