Lions in pound seats
Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town - Deservedly topping the Absa Currie Cup table at the midway mark, the Golden Lions have an opportunity over the next three weeks to put further daylight between themselves and the chasing pack.
Their upcoming trio of fixtures are all against the “non-Test” unions: Pumas (away), Griquas (home) and Leopards (away).
While ever-vigilant coach John Mitchell made the point, immediately after his charges had impressively seen of defending champions the Sharks 28-19 at a well-attended Ellis Park on Saturday, that even the smaller sides are rather more up for it this year, he will also know that the Lions could create unstoppable momentum if they get through all of these games unscathed.
If they play over that period with the same passion and mix-it-up ability they mustered in their latest encounter, they will make it extremely hard for anyone to haul them in.
The Lions undoubtedly made a strong bounce-back statement, after surrendering their unbeaten record to Western Province at Newlands last week, and will start the second round of matches with a clear-cut five-point lead over both WP and the Sharks, in second and third spots on the log respectively.
Their baby-faced flyhalf Elton Jantjies is blossoming increasingly now as a general, kicking flawlessly off the tee again on Saturday, making some decisive breaks or half-breaks, and also kicking out of hand most intelligently.
In addition, the Lions were able to welcome back, for a second-half burst, their popular inside centre and “extra fetcher” Doppies la Grange from a reasonably long-term injury, and managed this excellent victory without another cult figure, bearded loose forward and leader Josh Strauss.
Other pieces of the jigsaw are fitting nicely, too, with the pack working together diligently once more as a unit, and Lionel Mapoe starting to look encouragingly settled in midfield after earning his early first-class laurels mostly as an electric wing.
The hoo-ha about Jano Vermaak leaving in mid-campaign for arch-rivals the Blue Bulls has also faded with Michael Bondesio stepping into the scrumhalf void competently.
Perhaps the one factor that could yet see the Lions knocked off the “home final” perch, if they don’t cash in properly over the next three weeks, is that their last four round-robin matches are all toughies - Bulls (home), Cheetahs (away), WP (home) and a last outing that may be hugely influential, against the Sharks in their Durban stronghold.
Second-placed WP, meanwhile, still have to contemplate away matches against all of the other three sides in the top four at present ... the Lions, Sharks and Griquas.
It is to Kimberley that they go next weekend, well remembering that Griquas held them to a 26-26 draw in the opening round this season at Newlands.
The home team will also be buoyed by their latest scalp, the Cheetahs in a come-from-behind performance which saw them turn a 20-9 deficit at an advanced stage of the “derby” into a 23-20 triumph.
And next weekend doesn’t get too much easier for the Sharks, who lost Springbok Ryan Kankowski to an apparent neck injury halfway through the Lions reverse, as they return to the Highveld to play the awakening Blue Bulls.
Although they presently lie sixth, the Bulls are very much in the semi-final hunt as they are only four points adrift of fourth-placed Griquas.
The vibrancy of the 2011 competition thus far - even without so many top internationals gracing it - has surprised a few critics, this one included, and it ought to only get better as the race for last-four spots intensifies in coming weeks.
Next weekend’s fixtures:
Friday: Pumas v Lions, Nelspruit.
Saturday: Leopards v Cheetahs, Potchefstroom; Griquas v Western Province, Kimberley; Blue Bulls v Sharks, Pretoria.
All remaining matches for the current top three:
Lions (27 points): Pumas (a), Griquas (h), Leopards (a), Bulls (h), Cheetahs (a), WP (h), Sharks (a)
WP (22 points): Griquas (a), Leopards (h), Bulls (a), Cheetahs (h), Sharks (a), Lions (a), Pumas (h)
Sharks (22 points): Bulls (a), Pumas (h), Cheetahs (a), Griquas (h), WP (h), Leopards (a), Lions (h)