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    Indisputable: Lions a class apart in SA

    2016-07-24 13:18

    Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer

    Cape Town - The quarter-finals of Vodacom Super Rugby 2016 only underlined just how superior the Lions have been to any other South African team in both playing style and performance.

    While they advanced to the semis with a pleasing bit to spare from their Highveld contest with seven-time champions the Crusaders (42-25), compatriots the Sharks and Stormers were blown rather violently out of the water by other New Zealand powerhouses the Hurricanes and Chiefs respectively.

    Observers in this country who wish the best for all our sides must have thought things could hardly get worse on Saturday when the Sharks were thrashed 41-0 in Wellington - where a hurricane of a weather-related kind was just one further obstacle to deal with - but you might well argue that they did in the late kick-off at Newlands.

    The margin was a wee bit narrower at 39 points, but when you consider that the Stormers were at home against the Mooloo Men, crashing 60-21 was perhaps the bleakest SA aspect of the weekend’s last-eight roster in the final analysis.

    Fears that the Stormers would be caught cold, and not just by the mid-winter chill at their supposed stronghold, considering that the tournament’s increasingly dubious format precluded them (phew?) from playing any NZ teams prior to the knockout phase certainly came home to roost.

    They were badly outwitted, out-skilled and disappointingly even out-muscled too much at times by a collectively marvellous Chiefs combo ... and one operating without certain key-figure absentees, into the scary bargain.

    The outcome was, naturally, an unpalatable send-off to Saracens for Schalk Burger, one of the genuinely great servants of Newlands rugby over a 13-year period, although hopefully Stormers fans would have been mature and magnanimous enough to put their depression over the result to one side in admiration of the durable loose forward’s one-franchise career on these shores.

    Burger himself is also philosophical and battle-wise enough to know that sometimes your troops are simply blitzed by a hugely better foe; he was one of the more stubborn bastions in attempting to stem the flow of points at the wrong end of the park.

    Overall the Stormers looked callow and bewildered for major portions of the match, so it is very little comfort to their fan base going forward that one of their most senior and consistently up-and-at-‘em players for well over a decade is finally off to new pastures, potentially aggravating their vulnerability in uncertain times for SA rugby as a whole.

    Thank goodness, then, for the Lions keeping national pride in the competition - with the greater demands of the Rugby Championship fast looming - from disappearing down the plughole.

    What was especially impressive about their five-tries-to-three win at Emirates Airline Park was the more resolute defensive relish and structure - needed, because the Crusaders had decent attacking passages too - than had been evident when they lost 43-37 to the same opponents earlier in the season.

    But the Lions also stuck resolutely to their own up-tempo, crowd-pleasing game-plan with ball in hand, and while several of their group of Springboks from the series against Ireland excelled, men like the turbo-powered inside centre Rohan Janse van Rensburg (dovetailing brilliantly in midfield with Lionel Mapoe) and beavering hooker Malcolm Marx effectively issued further appeals for green and gold call-ups.

    The Lions’ reward for this display, which helped to quell the reservations in some circles about coach Johan Ackermann’s decision not to send his A-team to Argentina last week, is another home date in the semis with the Highlanders this Saturday.

    There will be every likelihood of bookies installing the Lions as fairly clear favourites, partly given that the side from Dunedin have had perhaps the most prodigious of travel of all teams in the spell since the June Test window - and now fly long-haul to South Africa again.

    On Friday the Highlanders edged their quarter-final against the Brumbies in Canberra, the week before that they hosted the Chiefs, and the two earlier rounds had seen them play in Buenos Aires and Port Elizabeth respectively.

    History tells you that such a globe-trotting itinerary usually comes back to bite you pretty hard at vital late stages of Super Rugby.

    If the Lions can get through the fixture, they automatically become the first South African finalists of the “conference era” since the Sharks got that far in 2012; they were drubbed 37-6 by the Chiefs away.

    It would also put them in line to be possible first SA champions since the last of three Bulls titles in 2010.

    No doubt the Lions, while not wishing to take their eyes off their own still formidable task next weekend, will be willing a Chiefs victory in the other semi-final against the Hurricanes at the Cake Tin, because that would ensure a Jo’burg showpiece a week later if they have progressed.

    A final in New Zealand? Eina, it would take a brave soul to back a South African team to win that under present circumstances.

    Even if they are the cohesive, ambitious Lions …

    *Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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