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Rugby | Vodacom Super Rugby

Now or never for the Lions

The Emirates Lions need to make full use of the favourable path they have paved for themselves to ultimate Vodacom Super Rugby glory for it is going to be much tougher for them and the other South African teams from next year.

We have yet to be furnished with full details of how the new, more streamlined, 15-team competition will be formatted, but we should assume we have seen the last of a system that sees the Chiefs travelling to Cape Town for their quarterfinal even though they finished with more log points than the DHL Stormers.

That the Hurricanes have to travel across the Tasman Sea to Canberra to play their quarterfinal on Friday is equally ridiculous. The Hurricanes ended with 58 points against the Brumbies’ 34. They travel because the Brumbies topped a weak Australian conference. The Chiefs ended with 57 points and the Stormers with 43, but the Stormers advance because they had a better season than the Vodacom Bulls, Toyota Cheetahs and Sunwolves.

You’d also have to be a very one-eyed Lions fan to disagree that it is unfair that the Crusaders, after winning all but one game in the extremely competitive New Zealand conference, have to settle for second place. The Lions have enjoyed an outstanding season and this past weekend just confirmed how far they are ahead of the rest of the South African teams, but what they faced doesn’t compare to what the Crusaders faced.

However, the competition format as it currently stands is what it is, and coming to South Africa to play a playoff game at altitude is a tough thing to do. That has been proven over and over, so the Lions do have a very real chance of going one better than last year.

They will know they must take that chance though, because the competition format next year might not load the advantage in favour of the South African teams like it has over the past few seasons. There will be a double header on local soil this weekend, with the Lions and Cell C Sharks playing the early game on Saturday and the Stormers and Chiefs the later one.

The Stormers beat the Chiefs at Newlands in April so they do have a realistic chance of winning and advancing to a semifinal for the first time since 2012. The Chiefs smashed them in the corresponding game in 2016, but this time around the Stormers have at least had a taste of Kiwi opposition. It didn’t turn out well for them on tour, but they won both their home games against New Zealand sides.

A taste of Kiwi opposition is what the Lions haven’t had this year, so it is going to be interesting to see how they go in the playoffs now that they are going to be weaned off their diet of local and Australian opposition.

Of course, they have to get past the Sharks first, and their coach will be warning them this week against the biggest danger they face, which is complacency. The Sharks were well beaten in the final match of the league phase at Kings Park, but it wasn’t the Durban team’s most passionate performance. They gave the impression that their mission was to give themselves a tough work-out but without making the win that would book them a flight to Christchurch an imperative.

The Sharks have blown hot and cold all season and after Saturday’s defeat they will feel they’ve been cold for two games in a row. That could spell danger for the Lions. But the smart money should be on them maintaining their dominance over their arch-rivals, which will set them up for a semifinal against either the Hurricanes or the Chiefs, depending of course on whether the Crusaders do the expected by winning their derby against the Highlanders.

The Hurricanes scored 50 the last time they traveled to Johannesburg and, if the Chiefs are the opponents, they would have spent two weeks in the country. So it won’t be easy for the Lions. But what they do have on their side is the altitude factor, which was such a strong ally for them last year, and if they win they will have altitude on their side in the final too.

So this is their chance, possibly the best chance they will have, not least because the two protagonists at Loftus this past weekend, the Stormers and the Bulls, though far off the pace now, should be better next year and mount a more formidable challenge to the Lions’ local supremacy. The Bulls will be benefiting from the coaching of John Mitchell, while Western Province’s win in the SuperSport Challenge final on Sunday confirmed the impressive depth coming through in the Cape.

The final round of the league phase provided one ray of hope to those who are questioning the choice of teams to be excluded in the competition going forward, that being the excellent win scored by the Sunwolves against the Blues in Tokyo. It was a game that proved what can happen if the Japanese get it together, and their quest now must be to ensure that all the best Japanese players get to play for them. That is not the case currently.

Considering they are almost a full international team, the Jaguares’ first two seasons in Super Rugby have been a disappointment, and they struggled to beat the Rebels in Melbourne in the final round. Both they and the Sunwolves require improvements next year in what should be a much more competitive competition than the current one.

Weekend results

Highlanders 40 Reds 17

Rebels 29 Jaguares 32

Southern Kings 20 Toyota Cheetahs 21

Sunwolves 48 Blues 21

Chiefs 28 Brumbies 10

Hurricanes 31 Crusaders 22

Western Force 40 Waratahs 11

Vodacom Bulls 33 DHL Stormers 41

Cell C Sharks 10 Emirates Lions 27


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